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How structure change will improve Super League - Wigan Warriors owner

Wigan's win at St Helens last month was the best game in three years, says Ian Lenagan
Wigan's win at St Helens last month was the best game in three years, says Ian Lenagan

Super League chiefs met this week to begin plotting the path to a brighter future – after last Friday’s major vote over the competition’s structure.

Ian Lenagan got his wish when a vote at an EGM to scrap the Super-8s/Qualifiers and revert to a more traditional format was passed.

Ian Lenagan

Ian Lenagan

It was significant because Leeds, and several lower-league clubs, had opposed the RFL’s proposal and – had they won – then 11 Super League clubs would have been forced into playing under a competition format they did not want.

Next season, 12 clubs will compete over 29 rounds, with the bottom club relegated and the top-five entering an end-of-season play-offs.

Of course, nobody is suggesting the change alone will achieve chief executive Robert Elstone’s vision of revitalising the competition, driving up the quality and creating more stars in the game.

But even so, Wigan chairman Lenagan says it is a significant shift.

He said: “The thing which is significant is this will be 29 games each, its 12 teams competing against each other and the focus is on those 12 teams.

“What we have currently – two thirds of a season doing this, a third of the season doing that, near-empty stadiums in games against Championship clubs – is too complicated.

“This is nice and simple, it worked before, it works in rugby union.

“And it’s the simplicity which allows the whole of the new management – and this is the second point – Robert Elstone as executive director of Super League, and his staff, are all just dedicated to Super League.

“The problem in the last five years is the staff at the RFL– good staff – are spending time on the England team, and the Challenge Cup, and the Championship, and Super League.

“Now, we have 100 per cent focus on the success of Super League.”

That focus will not only be about trying to improve marketing, publicity and sponsorship.

Lenagan says they will consider making on-field adjustments, too, to make the game more attractive – a reduction in the number of interchanges, from 10 to eight, has been one suggestion. The introduction of a shot-clock, to limit time in breaks in play, is another, while some believe golden point would improve spectacles.

“We’ll be talking about the commercial side and sponsorship, but also the laws of the game, whether we want shot clocks, whether we want to speed the game up, which is certainly one of the facets of rugby league generally,” he said.

“And because we’re not dependent on a governing body and Super League and the Championship, we in Super League will make those changes quickly.

“Getting the vote was about crossing the starting line – now the work starts.

“We can sell season tickets, we can promote the game... all the things we want to do. We’re actually in a place to go forward.

“It’s all very positive, I think. Super League is now in charge of its own destiny.”

Wigan, and the majority of the other top-flight clubs, took control of Super League from the RFL and brought in Elstone as chief executive to try and revitalise the competition ahead of negotiations over the next TV deal.

The existing contract with Sky Sports runs out in 2021, and receding attendances and viewing figures led to fears the next deal will not be at the same level unless action was taken.

But talks with the broadcasters will not all be about the next contract.

“We can get into sensible conversations with Sky about dealing with what they want and what we want,” he said. “Because we’re not too keen on Thursdays, they may be more keen on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and maybe televising more games, who knows? I’m not presupposing anything.”

He did, however, say he imagined any radical changes would be implemented from 2020.

“The Challenge Cup, many of us think (the final) should be played in May or June, and not on August bank holiday which is the worse possible time,” he said. “Yes there may be changes, the difficulty is because it’s taken us nine months to get to this point, we can’t change too much for next season. But if we want to do any radical, positive changes we can do it for 2020, show Sky and the other broadcasters where we’re at.”

The new structure will see the 12 teams play each other home and away – for 22 fixtures – plus a Magic Weekend and six additional ‘loop’ games to pad the season out to 29 rounds.

That measure has drawn criticism in some quarters, as they may skew the table and unfairly relegate a team who wasn’t bottom after playing each other home and away. So why the extra matches?

“We have to do loop games because 11 home games is not enough. You can’t do it,” said Lenagan, ahead of yesterday’s meeting which was planning to discuss how the loop games would be picked.

“You need 13 or 14 home games – this gives us 14 home games. It may be even against odd, it may be top against bottom, whatever the method is doesn’t matter, this is a way of getting us into next season with 14 home games.” Expanding the top-flight would scrap the need for the loop fixtures but Lenagan says that idea was ruled out.

“Because we haven’t got 14 teams of the quality. Everyone involved knows that,” he said. “We’ve got six very good teams and six improving, but not great, teams in that respect.

“We have to end up with 12 strong teams and four strong Championship teams, and then it may be the time to go to 14 teams – because 26 fixtures and Magic would be perfect for us.

“But Sky, along with everyone in the game, say we haven’t got the quality to do that (at present).

“Super League needs a strong Championship because we need to have a challenge to the bottom clubs in Super League.

“We want the Championship to continue to move forward. There’s no negativity towards the community game or the semi-professional game. We need that as part of Super League. There are no negatives from us.

“We are funding them, guaranteed for three years and probably thereafter. That’s great support for the Championship.”

Lenagan’s focus, though, is firmly on Super League and he is convinced former Everton chief executive Elstone is the right man to improve the competition before crucial TV contract talks begin.

“Confidence is all about, ‘Is the game good?’ and ‘Have you got good people to direct it?’” he said. “I think we have both of those in spades.

“Robert has proven himself over the last six months with what he has done.

“In terms of rugby league itself, it’s a great game but we need to focus on the top-tier of the game and stop showing games with half-empty stadiums and get on with the real top-end of the game.

“Wigan against Saints three weeks ago was the best game I’ve seen in probably three years.

“We’ve got at least six teams who can do that. We need to get the other six in Super League to get up to the same standard and we need two or three in the Championship to be able to challenge them.

“That’s where we need to go.”