Talking RL: ‘If Elstone wasn’t sure about the challenges he faces...’

Robert Elstone with some club representatives at Warrington on Tuesday
Robert Elstone with some club representatives at Warrington on Tuesday

If Robert Elstone needs any reminding about the size of the job he has taken on, he will surely get it after he is interviewed on Sky Sports’ Golden Point tonight.

After Brian Carney has interviewed the new Super League chief executive about his hopes and challenges – and before he takes his seat – Elstone should take a look around.

And take in all the empty seats.

Salford-Widnes, a game between two clubs struggling on and off the field. One doesn’t even have an academy side, let alone a reserves.

When even some people who love rugby league aren’t too bothered about watching it – and I include myself in that group – what hope the passive fans, or neutrals, will care?

That is the challenge Elstone faces.

“We have to energise the sport,” he said on Tuesday.

Energise, the same way you energise a car by jump-starting it.

There are strengths to Super League – I was engrossed by Friday’s game between Warrington and Castleford, for example – but most seem to agree the sport needs revitalising.

It needs a reboot, a kick up the backside.

St Helens owner Eamon McManus said when he took over the club two decades ago, it was more on a par with the NRL – certainly in terms of the salaries it could afford – and bigger than rugby union’s Premiership. Not now.

And he didn’t mention that, 20 years ago, several other sports – UFC, darts, women’s football – didn’t have the profile they currently have. The NFL wasn’t playing games in England. Boxing had its drawcards but I don’t recall it having the clout it has now.

Not only has Super League gone backwards, but others have grown.

Which is why I understood why disillusioned clubs decided to take control of their future and appoint Elstone – a man with superb Premier League credentials, and a real passion for the game – to the helm.

Journalists are cynical by nature, but many were encouraged by the press conference at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones on Tuesday afternoon.

After six months of silence, we got answers.

And we got a clear vision from Elstone for real growth of the top-flight.

Champions Leeds disagree with the power-shift – and they reacted with a strongly-worded statement – but the 11/12 vote by the Super League clubs reflects the majority have a strong desire for significant change.

They want control of spending, fixtures and the competition’s future. And they want greater focus on the top-flight, something Lenagan - and others - felt was lost with it under the RFL’s umbrella.

Lenagan even cut off one of the early questions because it was in reference to the Championship, stressing this seismic shift was about putting Super League front and centre.

What happened next?

Well, everyone talked about the Championship, of course!

In fairness, the Super League bosses brought it on themselves, declaring from the top-table – to a decent media turnout – a plan to scrap the Super-8s this year in favour of a more traditional structure in 2019, with promotion and relegation.

Batley threatened “war looms” in a statement which read (and the abbreviations aren’t mine): “SL Plan not yet made back of cig packet let alone any documented proposal. An amateurish farce.”

And nothing says amateurish quite like a statement made in text-speak which is then retracted, corrected, and reissued!

Featherstone and Doncaster also reacted.

They are hardly super-powers of the game, and some may be tempted to dismiss their moans altogether – would Man United and Chelsea listen to Port Vale in talks about a Premier League mid-season break?

But, as Swinton’s chairman Andy Mazey stated on Twitter, “I have no issue with SL clubs being masters of their own destiny and maximising opportunities, however competition structures have a wider implication and require consultation and agreement of all of the game’s stakeholders.”

And currently, no agreements have been reached.

Which is not to say a deal won’t be struck (it would be interesting to know how ambitious clubs like Leigh and Toronto feel) or that Super League won’t be able to force through changes as part of their greater control.

But even so, it seems foolish to have mentioned structure changes so definitively, given it dampened the flickering embers of Elstone’s introduction.

Sky Sports executives would be forgiven for rubbing their hands together at the internal-bickering, which would be a pity.

Because they are the very people Super League ultimately need to impress.

In three-and-a-half years, the current broadcasting deal – which provides the lifeblood for the game – comes to an end.

And if Super League doesn’t grow, if it doesn’t spark more interest and generate more income and attract more fans, what chance of an increase to the next TV contract?

Which is why the shake-up needs to take place now.

Yes, support the lower-league clubs.

Yes, give them funding.

And if any of them (Toronto, Leigh, even York or Bradford) want to have a crack at tackling Super League now or down the line, good luck to them. The door is open.

But I agree with the fundamental drive which has led to Elstone’s appointment.

And, once he has extinguished the bushfires in his own backyard, I wish him well. I hope he can grow the sport. I hope he can bring in more income, help drive up the standards, increase its profile, add a vibrancy and a relevancy that have been sorely lacking.

I hope he is given power to set minimum standards (including reserves). That he doesn’t become a yes-man for the 12 clubs, or have his hands tied behind his back, or try and please everyone all the time.

We know, at its best, how good Super League can be. But we need to see it more often.

We think there is room for domestic growth - and a peak 1.1m audience watching Wigan’s Challenge Cup game against Warrington the other day suggests there is.

But we also know there are real problems.

Clubs struggling for cash, teams lacking quality, fans losing interest.

And Elstone will see that first-hand at the AJ Bell Stadium tonight.