AMID the fall-out between certain club leaders, much of what Tuesday’s press conference was actually called for – to introduce new Super League chief executive Robert Elstone and hear his plans – was lost in the din.
Yet, as the sport did its best once more to self-destruct with tired squabbling, the eloquent Yorkshireman had plenty of positive views to express.
Certainly, for the first time in some years, there was a general feeling that rugby league has an administrator at the helm ready to make some crucial and much-needed changes to finally improve its outlook.
The headline ‘news’ was that Super 8s will be scrapped in 2019 for a new format that has yet to be decided but will probably include several ‘loop’ fixtures to make up the shortfall.
However, the Rugby Football League made a statement yesterday which, while supporting Elstone, said discussions with Super League, Championship and League 1 clubs are still “ongoing”.
It added: “No binding decisions have been made across a range of issues, including competition structure, but progress is being made.”
Clearly, that supports Gary Hetherington’s view, Leeds Rhinos’ chief executive who was furious Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan and St Helens owner Eamonn McManus claimed at the press conference the Super 8s had already been ditched.
Championship clubs, such as Batley Bulldogs and Featherstone Rovers, also aired their displeasure that Super League had insisted a change in structure had been agreed for 2019.
The matter is currently opaque, to say the least.
It is less than four years since the Super 8s were brought in amid much fanfare of a ‘bright new era’ for the sport but yet again the format, it seems, could be altered.
Elstone – who believes a one-up, one-down method of promotion and relegation is likely to return – admitted there is now no room for error and rugby league must, once and for all, get it right.
“I look at the game I’ve watched for almost 50 years, and the change in competition format has been too frequent,” he said.
“We look at the format as the panacea for the game but I don’t think it is; we have to realise the solution is within the clubs and the way we grow the game.
“The format is important – but simplicity and understanding of it is essential. And the next structure has to stay.”
With the current broadcast contract expiring in 2021, one of Elstone’s main tasks will be securing the best possible new deal.
By that point, he hopes to have helped drive crowds up and improved the spectacle on the pitch.
“I think the most important thing this game can do is be prepared and be absolutely on the money when we sit down for the next round of broadcast deals,” added the Barnsley-born 54-year-old, who left Everton Football Club to take on the role.
“The broadcast market is changing so rapidly and there are so many opportunities out there if you go to the market with a fantastic product.
“That’s about the competition structure we take to them, and a big priority is making sure we get that absolutely right.
“What it is now I don’t know. Whether 2019 becomes a holding position, I certainly think when we’re sitting down in 2020 and 2021 and talking to broadcast partners, it’s about getting something that works for them and making sure they invest as highly as they can.”
Super League have gone on record how, under the current system, theoretically four clubs could be relegated, creating too much uncertainty.
However, Elstone argued it works both ways.
“On the Super 8s, you will see the Championship talk up how it’s invigorated their competition,” he said.
“But the ones who come through (promoted) will face the same jeopardy 12 months later.
“There’s a fear factor there. If you’re a Championship side and you’ve an investor looking at a one-year promotion but then an eight-team mix where four will go, it has a short-term benefit.
“But any rational investor will then worry about what happens after that. The risk is huge. And what I hear loud and clear is of the 12 Super League clubs, six or seven are really worried about dropping in to the Qualifiers; that level of jeopardy is just too great.”
McManus argued the result will be “terminal” if Super League does not catch up with the NRL and elite rugby union competitions in terms of broadcast deals, sponsors and fan numbers.
Elstone added: “Of course there’s a lot of pressure (on me.)
“I know also there isn’t a magic wand and whatever my abilities are, this isn’t turning the tap on and everything will be great.
“It’s a lot of hard work. But everything I’ve done is about hard work.”