Why Leeds Rhinos boss Gary Hetherington confident rugby league will get it right third time around

LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington firmly believes Super League clubs are more unified than ever to move the whole sport forward after admitting progress over the last 25 years has been “disappointing” for the elite competition.

MAKING IT COUNT: Rugby league's power brokers are aiming to work together to maximise the potential of the sport, both on and off the field. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA

They and the Rugby Football League are currently in the process of ‘realigning’ after the ill-conceived split of 2018.

Back then, Betfred Super League voted to break from the governing body, essentially to take control of its own commercial issues and increase revenues with a focus on securing an improved broadcast deal.

Wigan Warriors owner Ian Lenagan, St Helens chairman Eamonn McManus and Warrington Wolves’ owner Simon Moran were chiefly behind the move, which saw Robert Elstone installed as Super League chief executive.

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Soon after, the sport’s format changed yet again with the Super 8s being ditched for a return to one-up, one down promotion and relegation.

Leeds were fervently against the idea of the breakaway and essentially the sole dissenter, Hetherington calling it an “absurd grab for power for the game by a small group of men who think they own the game.”

Since then, of course, Super League has been beset by problems, not least those caused by Covid but also an irritating inability for a dozen club chairmen and CEOs to agree on matters for the betterment of the sport.

Also, after failing to gain enough support to push through the private equity deal he had attracted to pump money into the competition, Elstone’s position became untenable and he stood down in February.

BREAKAWAY: Ian Lenegan (Wigan Warriors), Eammon McManus (St Helens), Robert Elstone (CEO Super League), Simon Moran (Warrington Wolves), pictured in the summer of 2018. Picture by Paul Currie/SWpix.com

Of late, with clubs all being hit financially by the pandemic and receiving a reduced broadcast deal next year, there has been an acceptance by Super League powerbrokers that they do need to work in unison with the RFL once more.

Hetherington is confident this can be third time lucky – Super League clubs also split from the governing body two decades ago before coming back under their control when Richard Lewis led an independent board.

He said: “Our sport is basically governed by the clubs themselves. Robert Elstone’s job was impossible to do – unless you have a common motivation by the owners themselves.

“And actually that is what we’ve got now for the first time.

HOPEFUL: Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“That’s come through adversity and fear of the unknown and the fact that our sport could actually be in jeopardy if we don’t do something about it.

“There is a common purpose as we come together to say let’s collectively look to do something that positions ourselves much better.”

Various joint-working groups have been set up to try and bring clarity ahead of the 2022 season.

After years of various infighting, asked if the unity was truly that strong, Hetherington replied: “Yes. I think it is.

Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com UNTENABLE: Former Super league chief executive Robert Elstone opens the press conference.

“Constitutionally, all the Super League clubs voted unanimously to make this change.

“And they are all very supportive of the project to create a group that we have got to go through a whole series of recommendations to move the game forward.

“All aspects of the game will be looked at; we don’t want to be coming back with anything in isolation. It’s a big piece of work which is going ahead now; I am confident things will change.”

For Hetherington to say that, having for so long had differing views to many of his peers, can only be a positive.

He admitted: “We created Super League 25 years ago and if we’d had a 25-year plan and we are where we are now, we’d be disappointed that we’d not delivered.

“The reality is that we never had a strategic plan: things emerged, things developed.

“So, whilst a lot of other good things have happened – certainly facilities development is probably the main one – as a sport, we’ve never had that strategic plan.

“This is something we now have the opportunity to put in place.

“Where it hasn’t paid (previously) is in performance. Performance-wise, our game has never punched anywhere near its weight in commercial or marketing terms – critical areas.

“We need to create a commercial entity which can really maximise the game’s worth.

“It will sit underneath the RFL and will be led by industry specialists to maximise the commercial value of the game.

“All the game’s commercial properties and key events will sit in this company, so that creates the perfect structure.

“You then need the right senior management and executive management to run it effectively.

“The governing body, ultimately, can only do so much. Most clubs aren’t maximising their potential. One of the objectives is to bring in a strategic investor – a major partner not just for Super League but for the whole game.”

The Championship and League 1, not just Super League, will hope Hetherington is proven correct.

Either way, and whatever the format might look like in 2022 and beyond, rugby league certainly cannot afford to get things wrong again.