Rugby league’s War of the Roses restarts over Elstone’s appointment
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In a week when one of the world’s global sporting events kicks off, it has all kicked off in rugby league’s oldest rivalry – between the boardrooms of Lancashire and Yorkshire’s elite clubs.
The official unveiling of former Everton FC chief executive Robert Elstone as the new Super League chief executive should have been a positive moment for the sport, which its fans generally consider to exist in spite of rather than because of its administrators.
Elstone, a Castleford Tigers fan who captained his University of Hull team to success in both the Universities’ Cup and Championship, found his honeymoon period lasted only slightly longer than a rugby league match.
He was introduced to the media at 2.15pm at a press conference in Warrington by St Helens chairman Eamonn McManus, and flanked by Wigan Warriors’ owner Ian Lenagan and Warrington Wolves’ owner Simon Moran.
Little more than two hours later rugby league’s War of the Roses had restarted.
Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, who has enjoyed a very close relationship with the sport’s administrators for more than a decade, issued his declaration of war at 4.30pm.
“Today’s 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,” he said, in a statement that was extraordinary even by the standards of rugby league’s infighting.
“Leeds Rhinos are not party to this and are totally against the creation of a separate Super League executive. Super League clubs voted 7 to 5 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 Rugby Football League, the game’s governing body, and this announcement should bring a response from everyone connected with the game.”
His statement was quickly followed by one from its Yorkshire neighbours Batley Bulldogs, a club which has not played in the top division since the single division format was ditched in 1973.
Batley said: “Any Super League plan at the last meeting had not even made it to the back of a cigarette packet, let alone a formulated document proposal.
“We need the RFL response to confirm this position working towards a whole game solution or war looms.”
The debacle comes at a time when the game is in the grip of a quiet crisis that has been building for a decade under poor leadership from Red Hall, the game’s Leeds HQ.
Elstone will need to draw on his wide range of experience
He joins a sport that faces a range of problems, including a poor media profile, confused governance, and the overarching problem of how to grow a game that largely relies on the economic pull of post-industrial towns in the north of England.
Its four Challenge Cup quarter finals two weeks ago attracted a combined attendance of just 25,285, its leading players only receive widespread media coverage for their off-the-field misdemeanours, and commercial revenues are dwarfed by the sports it holds up as its competition.
Elstone may wish to be reminded of a quote from legendary Australian rugby league coach Jack Gibson.
“In football, if you are standing still, you’re going backwards fast,” said Gibson.
Elstone has his work cut out to make sure Super League stands still.
Early in his career he worked as executive assistant at the Rugby Football League, alongside chief executive Maurice Lindsay during a period of significant, and largely positive, change for the sport.
A trained accountant, Elstone has also had two spells at Deloitte where he advised sports’ governing bodies and clubs, and worked for BSkyB as a director of football business affairs, before his 13-year spell at Everton.
The 54-year-old talked first about his love of the game when he was formally introduced at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
He said: “In my impressionable teenage years, two teams inspired me; Malcolm Reilly’s Castleford team of the mid-late 70s and of course, the 1982 Kangaroos.
“I had the good fortune to be a student in Hull at the time and the Kangaroos were the reason, three months after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, that I travelled to Sydney, put my career on hold, and went on a two-year tour of Australian Rugby League. On the way home, I cut short a round the world trip to get back to Cas for their game against the 1990 tourists.”
Elstone was received warmly by the rugby league media as he set out his vision for Super League.
“We all want, and we all need, a vibrant, sustainable, competitive and compelling Super League, one that sits at the heart of our communities, one that brings communities together, one that makes fans of our game proud,” he said.
“The challenge is how we achieve that. That’s about leadership, unity, and a committed and focused group of people who will roll their sleeves up and make things happen. It’s also about being positive and realising we have something special in our clubs, our fans, our players and the game we play.
“The job starts by establishing a positive working relationship with the RFL that respects Super League’s responsibility to the whole game, and challenges the RFL to provide the highest standards of governance for Super League.”
Before the afternoon was finished, the statements by Leeds Rhinos and Batley Bulldogs had cast a dark cloud over what should have been a rare day of sunshine for rugby league.
Elstone would be forgiven for recalling Gibson again, who once quipped: “They’d boo Santa Claus, this mob.”