THE first question new Super League chief executive Robert Elstone was asked in a separate media briefing after yesterday’s press conference unveiling was whether one of his first tasks was to get Leeds Rhinos ‘onside’.
It came about because, during the press conference, Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan – in his role as a Super League director – had detailed just how voting had been going in certain matters.
He said: “We currently have a consistent 11-1 position and there is no secret about who the 12th club is. It’s Leeds, and Leeds are well able to have their own different opinion. But the board of Super League now runs Super League and there is very close cohesion – better than ever I’ve seen in 15 years in rugby league.”
Among other things discussed during the lengthy press conference was how, essentially, the Super 8s have died and there will be no such format in 2019, although clubs and the RFL have not yet reached agreement on what the new format will be.
Promotion and relegation will remain, but, in all likelihood, back to one-up, one-down.
Former Everton FC chief executive Elstone, of course, has been placed in charge of driving Super League forward and maximising its potential – on and off the field.
The Yorkshireman certainly outlined his plans impressively and there was a genuinely positive vibe at the press conference, held at Warrington Wolves, that he could be just the person to grow the game, whether in terms of attracting new fans, sponsors or, significantly, securing that next broadcast deal.
But back to Rhinos chief Gary Hetherington and Elstone’s response to the question.
He said: “I’d first of all say they’re a terrific rugby league club. I’ve the utmost respect for Gary and what he’s achieved at Leeds. I know Gary really well from all sorts of different backgrounds; I’ve already been to see him and we’ve had some positive discussions.
“Like all of us, we think the game has to grow and change to stand a chance, and Gary’s view is really about how we do that and that’s the difference.
“I would hope that by working with me and seeing we’re collaborative, we do carry out our responsibilities to the wider game and Gary will come with us. Undoubtedly, we need Leeds with us and I’m confident we’ll get that. In the Premier League, Man United were always an outlier in terms of commercial development – this is different, but over time you have to bring them with you.”
However, before those comments were made public, Leeds made their own response to the press conference – which also had St Helens’ owner Eamonn McManus and Warrington Wolves owner Simon Moran on the top table – and Super League statement.
In it, Hetherington said the announcement regarding plans for next season “appear to be an absurd grab for power for the game by a small group of men who think they own the game.
“Leeds Rhinos are not party to this and are totally against the creation of a separate Super League executive. Super League clubs voted seven to five at our last meeting on some key issues related to promotion and relegation. The game is in need of strong leadership from Brian Barwick and his Board of Directors at the RFL, the game’s governing body, and this announcement should bring a response from everyone connected with the game.”
It seems Elstone will have a tougher job than he expected; even though Hetherington’s barb is not aimed at him, battle-lines are drawn.
All clubs bar Leeds, Huddersfield Giants and Catalans Dragons re-Tweeted the Super League statement.
Granted, Elstone does not need Leeds’s backing. However, Super League does need to change. If it does not, as McManus warned, with it already falling behind the NRL and rugby union Premiership, the results will be “terminal.” No one wants that.