Staring into the void - Hunslet coach fears season could be written off

Clubs in Betfred League One are facing the “grim” prospect of no more rugby this year, Hunslet coach Gary Thornton fears.

Hunslet's Matty Chrimes in possession during a pre-season win over Bradford Bulls. Picture by Paul Johnson.

Hunslet are top of the table, after winning their only two league fixtures so far, but have not played since a Coral Challenge Cup defeat at Featherstone Rovers two months ago today.

The south Leeds club are confident they will survive this year, even without any more income through the gate due to the coronavirus shutdown, but financial pressure would mount if they were forced to refund season tickets due to the competition being made null and void.

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There was a glimmer of hope for top-flight clubs when the government announced on Monday that sporting events may be allowed to resume from June 1, but only behind closed doors.

Hunslet beat Leeds Rhinos to retain the pre-season Harry Jepson OBE Memorial Trophy. Picture by Craig Hawkhead.

Thornton reckons that is a possible way back for Super League, because of their Sky TV contract, but “doesn’t work for us”.

Asked if he believes the League One season could be made null and void, Thornton admitted: “I really, really hope not, but when you look at the guidelines for the forEseeable future, it doesn’t look good.”

He said: “In my opinion, if we don’t get going by early July I just don’t see how we can fit a season in before having to close down and start again for 2021.

“For me, it is looking at the end date - what is the latest end date we could possibly work to - and then working it backwards.

Jack Lee on the ball for Hunslet against Bradford. Picture by Paul Johnson.

“That means, for me, it has to be sometime in July because I don’t see playing past November as an option. That would conflict with 2021 and I don’t think the RFL want to effectively spoil two seasons.”

Thornton reckons promotion and relegation have to be maintained, if the competition continues.

“It is a tough one,” he added.

“I really hope I am wrong and we do get some rugby this year, but for me it has to be a meaningful competition. There has to be promotion and relegation.

Membership schemes are crucial for Hunslet. Coach Gary Thornton signs up.

“I can’t see the point in playing games just for the sake of playing games; if there’s no conclusion to the season in terms of that I don’t think there’s much point pursuing it, really.”

Hunslet rely heavily on matchday income, including admission, hospitality and bar receipts and Thornton believes it is not practical for lower division clubs to play without fans.

“It is a huge iNput into our annual revenue stream,” he said of the money collected at home games.

“Without that, we’d be in a situation where we were running at a loss, effectively, because we’d have to cover all the costs of putting a game on - paying the players and staff and all the rest of it.

“There are obviously some savings on certain things, like security, but you’ve still got to actually put the game on and pay the players.”

Though the RFL has negotiated a £16m loan from government to help the sport survive, Thornton feels that might only delay problems, rather than solve them.

“It’s a loan so it has to be paid back,” he warned.

“It’s not a case of borrowing some money from that just to cover losses this year.

“If we do that we have to pay it back some time so it has to come from somewhere further down the line and it will have an impact in future years.”

Hunslet have been targeting promotion this year and Thornton said it would be “a shame” if they don’t get the chance to challenge for a place in the Championship for 2021.

“I was really looking forward to this year,” he added.

“We have put a good squad together, we have got a really good group of boys.

“We are still communicating regularly and doing a couple of tasks each week to keep them together and motivated, but it is difficult - and it is getting more difficult. The more grim it looks in terms of returning to play, the less enthusiastic people will be about things like that.”