Talking Point: Rugby League boss on Union’s world cup
‘The rugby union world cup is a fantastic opportunity for rugby league’
Super League’s general manager Blake Solly on the game’s restructure and why he’s not scared of the other code’s world cup.
“I AM not scared of the Rugby Union World Cup,” said Blake Solly defiantly, “it’s a fantastic opportunity for rugby league.”
In his first full season as Super League’s general manager, he faces a challenging year. Over a six-week period this autumn, up to 2.3m people will watch international rugby union live at the tournament’s 48 matches in England and Wales – comfortably more than watched the hundreds of Super League and Challenge Cup matches in 2014.
It will also receive huge media coverage, especially if the host team – which could include former rugby league players Sam Burgess, Kyle Eastmond, Chris Ashton, Stephen Myler and Owen Farrell – become the first England team to win a home rugby union world cup.
Mr Solly believes that Burgess, Eastmond and others can make people interested in rugby league “and where those players come from”, and the job is “to convert that interest into week-in, week-out fans – and we should be confident about that”.
He added: “We know that the atmosphere at a rugby league game is extraordinary and we know the action on the pitch is far more exciting than rugby union.”
Mr Solly, who spends most of his week at Super League’s operational base at MediaCity, Salford, was discussing the start of the 20th season of summer rugby at the Rugby Football League’s headquarters, Red Hall, in north Leeds, where the fields were blanketed with snow.
The competition, which kicks-off on Thursday, has a new structure that has been designed to boost interest and particularly attendances, which have fallen markedly for two seasons.
Super League’s 12 teams will play each other home and away, plus a one-off Magic weekend fixture at Newcastle’s St James’ Park. The top eight teams will then play a further seven matches, after which the top four will qualify for the play-offs before the champions are decided at the Grand Final at Old Trafford.
More radically, after 23 games Super League’s bottom four teams will play against the top four from the Championship in their Super Eight phase. The top three will then play in Super League next season, along with the winner of the fourth-versus-fifth “Million Pound Game”.
In theory at least, the new structure could result in one-third of the clubs in Super League being relegated, a major shift in thinking as it replaces a system which had abolished relegation.
Clubs had been given three-year licences for Super League, for 2009-11 and 2012-14, based on an assessment of a range of factors including facilities and commercial strength, as well as on-the-field results.
Licensing was meant to provide stability, but lost its fragile credibility when Celtic Crusaders pulled out the day they were due to be approved for the second wave of licences, while many clubs struggled to develop more secure commercial incomes.
Former Super League giants Bradford Bulls were the most prominent casualty, with the club that was seen as the commercial and marketing leaders during the early Super League seasons nearly going out of existence.
Sydney-born lawyer Mr Solly, who was director of standards and licensing at the Rugby Football League after working as a solicitor at DAC Beachcroft and Berrymans Lace Mawer in Leeds, is now responsible for making the split-season format a success.
He said: “Having done a lot of consultation with fans, there were a lot of games that didn’t have an impact on the system. We wanted more games to matter.
“Every week is important, every game is important. There’s no excuse to go to the movies and not to a game.”
“Having realised there was a need to return to promotion and relegation – when we spoke to clubs, fans, sponsors and broadcasters – we could have gone back to one-up, one-down.
“Previously Super League was full-time and the Championship was part-time, so we needed to come up with a system that recognised the gap between full-time and part-time rugby league.
“If a team is relegated it’s not the cardiac arrest it once was. It was trying to come up with a sustainable method.”
He claims the new structure is already helping to boost sponsorship, pointing to cider firm Kingstone Press’s increased involvement as evidence.
He described Super League’s main sponsor First Utility – the seventh-largest energy provider in the UK market, which is dominated by the so-called Big 6 – as “a great fit” for the competition.
“We see ourselves as a challenger brand too”, said Mr Solly, of a 120-year-old sport that is often seen – however stereotypical or superficial a judgement it is – as the embodiment of traditional northern, working-class values.
Mr Solly said: “If you ask [Sky Sports’ managing director] Barney Francis, he would say that one of the reasons why the organisation loves rugby league is the values, honesty, dynamism, how welcoming we are and the sense of community.
“So I think we still attract fans, sponsors and broadcasters because, whilst those values aren’t the national values, there is still a huge part of the population that wants to believe in them.”
Those stakeholder groups also want there to be an element of unpredictability and competitiveness. There have only been four winners in the 19 years of Super League, and you have to go back to Halifax’s championship-winning team of 1985-86 to find a club other than St Helens, Wigan, Leeds or Bradford with their hands on the trophy.
“We have probably got more clubs who can win this season than we have had in recent years,” he said. “Realistically we have got six teams that could win this year, which compared to most of the competitions is very good.
“It’s an interesting one. Wigan, Warrington, St Helens, Leeds, Catalan, Huddersfield will all have very realistic hopes of being at Old Trafford in October.”
Perhaps, though, the biggest challenge will not be getting a new winner in 2015, but with England rugby union’s team playing a World Cup game in Manchester on the same night as the Grand Final, getting anyone to notice if they do.