Nigel Wood, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, spoke to me in 2009 for a lengthy Rugby League World feature.
Are you happy with the current state of Rugby League?
Absolutely. We’ve got some really strong competitions with our three professional divisions. We have well-matched teams in the those divisions playing for meaningful prizes. A lot of attention is being focused on the Cooperative Championship where the competitiveness is unprecedented – we’re so deep into that tournament and every fixture still has a great deal of importance attached to it. In Super League, extending the play-offs to eight teams has also meant that nearly team has something to play for throughout the campaign. And in Championship One, even though Dewsbury have clearly been too strong, everybody else is beating one another.
From a business perspective, our sponsor portfolio is still where it needs to be – we’re in the middle of long-term arrangements. And the attendances are really good as well. Rugby League is no different to other economic entities and one or two organisations have felt a chill wind on occasions but, on the whole, we’re in a healthy position.
What are you most proud of so far in your time at Red Hall?
We have improved facilities at clubs, although that’s an area that is still being worked on. Player production has improved and is probably the key issue over the next four or eight years because one of our strategic objectives is to be internationally competitive on a sustainable basis – not just winning the odd game then disappearing back. That’s a major objective which has been underway for the last two years. We have worked on widening the gene pool, which is why expansion is so important. Unless we make London, South Wales and other areas work outside of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria we could face a shrinkage in playing talent. The business viability of many clubs – but not all – is a lot stronger and the salary cap at all three levels has ensured that common sense is applied by the clubs. And income coming into the sport is significantly different to what it was.Celtic Crusaders might have struggled on the field this season but Salford have been competitive and have beaten Leeds and St Helens.
Do you therefore think the decision to increase Super League to 14 teams has been vindicated?
One of the issues is player availability and we were confident that the talent was available, so yes. More clubs are scouring the Championships for talent and the home-grown players rule has created an imperative to source players. We’re trying to ensure that every good player has the chance to make the grade.
Any regrets over the decision to put Celtic Crusaders into Super League?
No, not regrets because they are important for many reasons. But they’re not in the position they should be – clearly they’ve had their difficulties and some of the decisions they took immediately after the licence was awarded weren’t the best. Notwithstanding that, there is a lot of work going on in Wales that is very commendable. It’s an important territory. That’s not to say we’ll put up with anything but now the first season is out of the way, they have an opportunity to regroup and we can assist with providing with some expertise in running a full-time club that maybe wasn’t there last August and September. There’s still a great appetite for Rugby League in Wales in the business and private communities. It’s very difficult to launch a new club that’s getting beaten on a regular basis, without at least one iconic player and without a visible Welsh presence. Those are learning points that the new team at the club will want to address in 2010. There were ten boxes for clubs to tick when it came to their licence applications.
Will you use the same ten next time? Will you add new ones?
That work is ongoing as we speak. Gary Tasker and his colleagues are working on what the next version of licensing will look like. The principles will broadly be the same but there will undoubtedly be some refinements with a different emphasis placed on particular categories. We think we got what was a very complex and groundbreaking piece of sports’ administration broadly right last time. Broadly right – we’re not saying it was flawless, but the substantial part of it was clear and concise. But we want to improve the areas that need to be improved. It won’t look exactly the same but it will be built on the same principles.
You’ve changed the format of the Super League play-offs for this season. Aren’t we promoting mediocrity by allowing a team from the bottom half of the league who may well have lost more games than they have won enter the play-offs?
First of all, it should be judged over a two- or three-year period but I still firmly believe that eight places from 14 clubs is fine because it puts equity deep into the regular season. We’re trying to get to a position where the number of dead-rubber games is minimised. If you are concerned that the eighth team is in the play-offs having finished in the bottom half, then at least they’re going to have to dig up some trees and climb some mountains to lift the trophy. What would be bizarre is finishing eighth and being catapulted to the final with one freak result. The key thing about any play-off system is that each position has to be preferable to the one beneath it and we think we have that. Also, our feedback suggested the play-offs were over too soon. A third of the clubs went out after one game but we have a better offer now without stretching the weekends out.
Could you have envisaged back in 1998 that the Grand Final would grow to be such a successful event?
It’s an outstanding event and it’s one of the iconic events which has its rightful place among the blue riband of British sport. It should be a matching of the best of the best. It has its place in the sporting calendar and it’s under lights at an iconic venue. Did we think it could be that when it was conceived? I think so. We shouldn’t be ashamed of giving our athletes the best possible stage to showcase their skills.
Have you been worried over the last few years about the health of the Challenge Cup?
When we first moved to a March-to-September season, a team that got knocked out of the Challenge Cup early had about six weeks without another game and there were other issues that needed to be addresses. Are we entirely satisfied with it now? No we’re not, but we’ve made improvements. Every serious sport keeps its serious trophies to be won at the end of the season so it needs to be respected as one of the two big prizes that can be won. There are issues that challenge knock-out competitions in all sports and you see empty seats in FA Cup matches – that’s a challenge that we all face. But we have some strong initiatives in place to increase crowds and we’ve been rewarded with some excellent attendances this year in round four, although we need to work on five and six. You can count on one hand the number of bad Challenge Cup ties over the last few years and the semi-finals were fantastic. We still need to work with the Beeb in particular about scheduling and work on more innovations to make sure crowds are as strong as they can be, especially in the televised games.
How big an opportunity is presented to Rugby League by BBC Sport moving to Salford?
BBC Sport moving to Rugby League is a significant opportunity for us. A lot of people forget – and if they do they ought to read Tony Hannan’s autobiography of Eddie Waring – how significant getting Rugby League on the Beeb was towards its development and the awareness of the sport on the national psyche. And it’s one of the challenges that continues to test Rugby League, particularly since rugby union went professional.
Will we ever see Rugby League on the other terrestrial channels?
Yes, there’s an appetite for live content and we must never lack confidence in the essential attractiveness of Rugby League. It is a terrific, gladiatorial sport played by big, strong athletes who move quickly and demonstrate great flexibility and athleticism and dexterity. They play well and hard and it is a game of great values in terms of respecting the officials and other players. It is perfect for television and we should have confidence that all of the mainstream broadcasters will want to cover the sport.
Sky have been rather negative about the Challenge Cup recently, sometimes referring to it as a ‘distraction’. Does that concern you?
For every comment such as that they’ve made many positive comments about great games. There are complications with the scheduling though. Sky’s presentation of Rugby League is second to none and anyone who isn’t satisfied with them must be a pretty hard-to-please character. We all know what they’ve done for Super League and their coverage of the Championship, for example, is superb – the clubs respond to it really well by delivering great crowds. Sky have helped create a sport that is unrecognisable from the mid ‘nineties.
Every year people talk excitedly about young players, but this season we seem to have some genuinely talented players right at the start of their careers.
People talk about a rich crop of young players every so often. Some groups excel and others aren’t as strong. But all the clubs supported the RFL’s initiative to deliver more home-produced talent which you would hope, over a two- or three-year incubation period, should mean there are players coming through of real quality. I agree the talent coming through this year is very exciting. You can’t make a judgement on one game but Huddersfield, with five or so débutants recently against St Helens, did very well. One of the strengths of the licensing is that it should give clubs the confidence to give players a fair run at it and not just put a telephone call into Sydney to find a player.
How hard has it been to encourage clubs to change the short-termism culture that many of them used to deal in?
It’s a continual issue. The start of it was getting the home-grown rules passed and accepted which the clubs, to their credit, did. Then there’s a legislative framework around which you can apply a set of rules. Without that you only have talk and goodwill and there’s no teeth to the rulebook. Since then, the club’s have taken it seriously but there’s still a tendency to go for the quick fix and maybe some of the agents who represent Australian players think there are contracts to be secured for their clients in the European Super League and are therefore very active in talking to our clubs. But there has been no resistance from the clubs to the changes and there’s a faithful and sincere appetite to address this priority for the British game, which is producing more players.
You’ve decreased the salary cap in the two Championship divisions but why not in the Super League as well?
There’s a balance to be had at Super League level. You’ve got to make sure the competition is capable of holding on to its world-class athletes and can attract other world-class athletes. If we’re significantly inferior in our ability to spend compared to the NRL, we lose players and lose our ability to attract new ones. There has to be an element of aspiration at the clubs who are not at full cap and who want to work harder to get there. If average turnover at Super League is £4 million then salaries at less than £2 million is in sync. To cut it could be a little bit punitive and a step too far.
How has the cap changed over the last few years?
It’s changed in three ways. Firstly, spend on juniors has been lifted out of the cap because it used to be an inhibitor on long-term investment. Secondly, we’ve dropped the 50 percent rule which was another inhibitor on competitiveness because some clubs were held back because of their turnover limitations. Thirdly – a massive change which has gone unreported really – we’ve moved onto a proactive, preventative cap, rather than a retrospective, audit-based cap. People could breach the cap, enjoy the fruits of that but not be discovered until the next year.
I haven’t been a fan of the Magic Weekend so far. While it’s good fun, it’s failed to attract any significant number of locals and there’s got to be a concern that those locals who do show up will be put off Rugby League by the mass of empty seats, the exhibition feel to the event and the relative lack of importance of the games – compared to a cup finals or internationals, the sort of event these stadia usually stage. If you knew when you came up with the idea that you would get these results, would you have still pursued it?
Definitely. I believe we have a golden triangle of domestic events and the Magic Weekend is right up there with the Grand Final and the Challenge Cup. That’s not to say we’re completely satisfied with it, because we’re not. But it’s not a match where you have a 120-minute focal point, if you include the pre-match entertainment and post-match celebrations. It’s more like a golf tournament or a cricket match when you dip in and out of what’s on offer. Therefore you have to adjust your mindset beforehand. If you expect to see a bank of full seats, you’re going to be disappointed. From all the research we have from the three Magic Weekends, more than 95 percent of people think it’s terrific. You might think ‘they’re bound to say that’ but usually people don’t necessarily tell you they like things – they’re quick to tell you when they don’t though. It’s also a great opportunity for our fans to see another city. We must never be complacent but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if some people leave early on the second day, for example. Taking a celebration of matches to a new city can only be good. Five years ago we didn’t have development staff in Scotland but now there’s plenty of activity there, as you’ll know.
Is it definitely in Edinburgh next year? And what about 2011?
Yes, Edinburgh in 2010 and then there’s an option for 2011 which we’ll look at next year.
Last year I suggested the World Club Challenge be played in Hong Kong – halfway between England and Australia and a sports-loving country where there is a multitude of big businesses to sponsor the event. Jamie Peacock and Maurice Lindsay have since suggested a neutral country as well. What’s the RFL’s stance?
The World Club Challenge works very well where it is but it’s probably capable of a bit more – what that is depends on what agreements we can reach with the NRL. The concept is sound but there’s a reluctance by the NRL to play it in the southern hemisphere. As for a neutral country, we’ve had a number of people over the years look at the possibility but the key to it all is that it’s not a cheap game to put on for obvious reasons. It’s a significant undertaking and we have to make sure the numbers stack up. It’s an easy one for the heart to rule the head.
Now the World Club Challenge has moved three weeks into the season, isn’t there a slot available for the Charity Shield to come back? If it had happened this year, for instance, Headingley would have been packed for Leeds v Saints a week before the first Super League game. Surely it would be cheap to stage and easy to encourage an existing sponsor and broadcaster to get involved?
Possibly. Again, it’s been floated but we have to be mindful of the fact that players say they play too many games. The elite players have a heavy workload, so putting more high-intensity games might not be a good thing. And it’s not just how much football we play but the break or lack of a break, in between seasons.
Wouldn’t the best solution to the ‘too many games’ argument be to reduce the regular season by five or six weeks? In the NRL there are 16 teams, but they play 24 rounds not 30. And if we did that, would the clubs really lose that much money? Some of the weaker clubs must be on the verge of losing money when they open the gates late in the season.
You must have a pretty good network to think that! If you remember 1998, we had a 12-team competition with 11 home games each and one on-the-road fixture. There was a clamour at the time that it was insufficient. If you only have 13 games then dropping one game is one-thirteenth of a club’s match receipts. That said, there is a debate to be had about the right number of games.
Last year, referees came under a great deal of scrutiny in Super League, but less so this year. For instance, many games were ruined last year by enormous penalty counts. Has refereeing changed or have the players adapted?
You’d have to ask Stuart [Cummings – referees’ boss] that. I’m pleased because, ostensibly, I’m a fan like everybody else and there’s a danger that you can over-regulate the contest that is Rugby League. We are in the entertainment business and whatever the people employed in the sport believe, the things that really matter are what the people who pay to watch the sport think. I share your view that we’ve had better spectacles that are well refereed and the players and coaches are also doing their bit. We’re in the third year of full-time refereeing, remember. When players first went full-time, there probably wasn’t an immediate improvement but it happened over time. I think we can expect the same phenomenon with match officials.
Last year I suggested dispensing with video referees as they sometimes cause more problems than they solve and they still make mistakes. Tony Smith has recently made the same call. What do you think?
I understand the frustration – that will always be there. They are a significant tool in the integrity of the contest but that’s not to say they’re totally flawless. Their operation this year has probably been better than it has been and they’ve been following a protocol. One of the problems in recent years has been that people have continued to look at incidents without necessarily getting the defining shot. I asked Stuart at the start of the year to publish the protocol which said ‘this is how we evaluate if it’s a try’, so everyone knew where they stood. There will always be human error. One point we need to look at is the amount of time the decision makes, especially in Championship games where there is no screen, so the fans aren’t engaged in the process. Overall, I think the pressure is in getting more of the elite competition covered by the video referee.
How about a licensing system for the Championship? We’ve seen a number of clubs over the years, like Doncaster now, struggle badly after promotion.
It is being considered but whether it’s called a licence or a minimum standard or whatever else, we don’t know yet. There are 21 clubs who can move freely between the two divisions but it is quite clear that the standards of the Championship are excellent. At the top end of the part-time game, there are good clubs who have good facilities, decent levels of turnover and spectators. There will be some version of licensing, but it might not be called that, because it’s entirely right that certain standards should be reached. Is it reasonable that clubs should be playing, off the top of my head, in front a couple of thousand people? Probably, yes. Should they be playing in a good, modern facility? Probably, yes. Should they be turning over, before central distribution, half a million pounds? Probably, yes. We can work on minimum standards but the clubs are probably not ready to make it more formal than that.
Will you add to those 21 clubs by bringing clubs from Edinburgh or Dublin, for example, into the professional pyramid?
If you’d asked that 12 months ago we might have been more confident about it but the general economic climate might have put things on hold. At some stage in the future there will be new applications to join the Championship because it’s a natural consequence of the development work that is going on around the country. Hopefully, there will be regions capable of sustaining a part-time club.
Is the Rugby League Conference doing a good enough job in producing players who could play at that level?
Yes it is, but it still needs to evolve. Rugby League is a tough game to play – I’d rather be a badminton development officer than a Rugby League development officer! You don’t get many people putting their hand up to play but they do phenomenal work in expanding the game – it’s not just a one-on-one game in a church hall. You need 20 other players in each squad, pitches, referees so there are plenty of challenges. Not everyone is going to like the collision but there are plenty who do love the rough and tumble of the fastest and best, most rewarding running, handling, contact sport that there is. But to move to the next level where you’re expected to go in there against players who are capable of earning money playing the game is a quantum leap. It would be a terrific achievement when a club has enough confidence in its own players to play in the Championship One division.
When you say that Rugby League is so tough to play that it can prevent people taking it up, wouldn’t it make sense to make it easier at a social level – the lower ends of the amateur game? Couldn’t the ten-metre rule be reduced to five, for instance?
There is the scope to look at all kinds of variations of the rules to suit particular circumstances. Part and parcel of achieving our participation objectives actually requires us being flexible with the rules. The most obvious example of this is the Masters version of the game. People have discussed 11-a-side at the lower levels. Our officers who work in development would be receptive to ideas but it has to be demand driven rather than supply pushed. We have a new director of participation, David Gent, who is joining the RFL and his main objective is to deliver the participation rates of the Whole Sport Plan. The factors that limit participation will be looked at.
The RFL have disbanded the Great Britain team and now England will participate in the Four Nations. But there are many down sides to this decision. For instance, Scotland, Ireland and Wales have lost the services of Danny Brough, Michael Platt and Dave Halley. If a Welsh kid went right to the top, he’d have very little chance of playing at the elite international level, compared to the chances Jonathan Davies had. Someone like Leon Pryce is unlikely to choose Jamaica over England, yet he might it if was just for a World Cup year. Why was this decision made? What are the tangible benefits of having England and not Great Britain?
It’s a good question. There had been confusion over the years over different brands being given to the elite national side. This gives Scotland, Ireland and Wales the chance to develop their own identity, safe in the knowledge that they’re going to be asked to compete in European Nations competitions and/or Four-Nations competitions and/or World Cups for the next ten, 15 or 20 years. Having Great Britain one year then England the next because it was a World Cup sent out a mixed message. This is a consistent, strong, medium-term objective to develop international Rugby League. The only way to do that is to treat them with respect and not to treat them as an in-fill in the years you have a World Cup.
If I was an outstanding 18-year-old Rugby League player who qualified for both England and Scotland, I would have played for Scotland in World Cup years and hopefully for Great Britain in others. Now, I’d be forced to choose England for the sake of my career – just like Danny Brough has done. Surely that hinders, not helps, Scottish Rugby League?
You touch on a really significant point and that’s international eligibility. It’s a subject we’ve talked a lot about with the Australians. We don’t want eligibility rules that are unnecessarily prescriptive. You could argue that State of Origin works against international Rugby League because the players have to play for Australia, so Samoa, Fiji, Tonga etc are weakened because Origin is such a powerful draw. We don’t just want flags of convenience where players can make their mind up on the eve of a tournament. We need the right balance.
Rugby League never does well in the Honours List. Surely, for example, a man like Ray French – despite, perhaps, not being the world’s best commentator! – should by now be an MBE or an OBE for his outstanding services to Rugby League. And, of course, there are many other deserving cases. Why do we fare so badly?
Please don’t think that as a governing body we don’t make a number of proposals, requests and recommendations for every cycle. I’m sure it’s a very competitive process but we have submitted lots of recommendations and we will continue to do so. By the way, we will welcome other people from within the family of Rugby League making nominations either directly or to us. We’d like to think we know all the deserving cases but we don’t always.
Tell us about your playing career.
I played for West Bowling as a junior then I was the captain of Halifax Colts for a couple of seasons. I went to Huddersfield where I played for their ‘A’ team for the best part of 1986. I went back to the amateur game when it became increasingly apparent how ordinary I was as a player! I then played seven years for a Pennine League team called South Bradford.
How did you get into the administrative side of the game?
I was the deputy head of finance at BBC North in Manchester and did the PR work for the Bradford District Amateur Rugby League and then for the Pennine League. I used to get all the scorers and results out over the weekend. Because of my love for the sport, I got involved with the radio broadcasts – I didn’t broadcast though – and got to know people like John Champion, Dave Woods and David Howes. To cut a long story short when Super League was created, a number of clubs needed chief executives and I applied for the job at Halifax and got it.
Did it benefit you long term that you were at a struggling club like Halifax?
Immensely. I spent five years at a club that was doing it tough and who didn’t have a board of directors who could make problems go away with the stroke of a pen. The club was always a full fare-paying member of the league which always presented itself and turned out good teams – we finished third in 1998. We took ‘Framing the Future’ seriously and tried to do something about facilities and standards. A number of people at the RFL, like Gary Tasker, have worked for clubs and know how tough it is out there day to day. We know and understand that.