Published in Rugby League World in 2009
The Rugby Football League held their annual press briefing before various members of the media on Monday 30 November 2009 to discuss, primarily, the Four Nations and the England coach’s job which was vacated by Tony Smith after England’s defeat in the final to Australia.
Richard Lewis, Chairman of the RFL; Nigel Wood, Chief Executive of the RFL and John Roberts, Director of coaching and performance, fielded questions from the assembled journalists on all things Rugby League in 2009 – with one exception. The proposed move of the Crusaders from south Wales to Wrexham was off the agenda with the RFL refusing to discuss the issue until it had been resolved due to the “commercially sensitive” issues the club face.
Wood and Roberts spoke briefly about the England job first and the process they will go through to find Smith’s successor.
The RFL board have asked me to head a panel of experts to sift through the various applications that have been received.
After the World Cup in 2008, the challenge was on Rugby League to develop a five-year plan to take us through to the world Cup in 2013 and that’s what we’ve been doing in the last six to 12 months under John’s leadership. We’re seeking to make an executive appointment that fits the skills base that already exists in the RFL’s performance department. Accordingly, the panel will be looking at the various candidates before making a recommendation to the board of directors.
The individuals on that panel will be Paddy Mortimer, who has recently come to join us working in the areas of sports science in particular where we felt the game lacked some expertise. BJ Mather is a name who is more familiar to everybody. His background has been in been in youth-player production more than anything and he’ll be leading our efforts in producing more players of the right calibre.
We will be including in that panel an ex-England international because it’s important that we get the right players’ perspective, while not asking any existing individuals who may have any potential conflicts. So therefore … somebody who is recently retired and who would perhaps understand what they think is needed out of the coaching.
Tony Smith will be providing his input and guidance at the appropriate time without actually sitting on the panel.
We are looking for a full-time appointment for the reasons just intimated. It needs to be part and parcel of all the measures the game is taking to give us the best possible chance in 2013. We haven’t set any restrictions on time lines. It’s more important we get the right person rather than a quick appointment so we’ll be looking wherever we need to look to get the right person or combination of people if that’s appropriate.
As always, we won’t seek to disturb and existing contractual relationships between coaches and clubs without getting the prior agreement of the clubs themselves. That’s just common courtesy.
We won’t be commenting on speculation as to who’s been linked with it and a ‘no comment’ shouldn’t be taken as an affirmation or the opposite.
Last year we set out a seven-point plan in terms of how we felt we needed to progress to win the World Cup in 2013. Therefore we’re looking to the long term to 2013 but we’re also looking to a system that can repeatedly deliver high-quality players, so it’s also looking beyond that.
The function that we want in regards to coaching is working very much in the context of the sport within Super League. In the last six months, we’ve been rolling out a programme under the Elite Training Squad which has been looking at the whole rounded aspect of a performance of a player – the science, the physiology of the movement skills, the mental side – and we’re starting some improvements just from the six weeks that we’ve been working with the players in the England set-up.
We therefore feel there’s a very clear need to have a stronger technical and tactical input into that process of how we support the players within a club environment, working very much in partnership with the coach within the club to how we develop those players who could be world class in 2013. So the type of person we’re looking for is someone who can provide that strong leadership on the technical and tactical side of the game within that context and work in partnership with the performance side of things – someone who can understand, oversee and guide and who is very open to working with the new ways of how we develop players physically and also mentally.
The main core role is to prepare an England role for 2013. the other aspect is how we support and develop players on an ongoing basis through a 12-month process working within a club environment, working, therefore, with the coaches of the Super League clubs with which those players are based.
Looking towards the future we are looking at the players who are currently not in the first squad for England but are potential players who could ultimately emerge for 2013. So we’re looking at the concept of a squad of players who would sit underneath that current England structure and how we would support their development and the coaches with that.
Finally, the last piece of the jigsaw for me is the infrastructure that we need to have that means it’s not just based on one individual – it’s actually a system that we start to build. That infrastructure such as the analysis, the sports science, the coaching, the coach education … we would be looking for that individual to provide that technical understanding and leadership within those areas, but also tapping into other coaches within the game and experts outside of the game to look at how we develop our system.
So there’s four key roles we’re looking for in the individual.
We have seen in the Four Nations some improvements and we are currently talking with each of the clubs and coaches and players as to how we continue to build on that programme. Ideally we would like to see an extension of the players who are in that Elite Training Squad so that we can start to look at more players getting the benefits and more clubs working in partnership with us. We’ll be looking at how to progress that over the coming months.
We used the GPS technology in the Four Nations. It’s been very interesting in terms of helping us to identify areas where we feel we are not at the cutting edge in our preparation and development. It has actually allowed us to pinpoint the type of support and interventions we can make to help improve. We’re looking for very small improvements across a number of areas and it’s been a valuable tool.
We’ve been able to identify the recovery levels of the players, their heart rates and the intensity of a game. The impacts – the G-Force measures – are phenomenal. We can now identify how we can improve our training methods, our nutrition and hydration. We can look at how to make players quicker and perform at a fitness for longer.
We’ve had a lot of very positive responses from the players and coaches in Super League.
The members of the media posing the questions were: Richard de la Rivière (Rugby League World), Martyn Sadler (League Express), Trevor Baxter (Daily Mirror), Gary Carter (The Sun), Andy Wilson (The Guardian), Dave Craven (Yorkshire Post), Ray French (The BBC), Andy Hampson (Press Association)
MS: So are we looking for a manager rather that a coach? A Clive Woodward type of role?
JR: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a Clive Woodward type of function but it’s clearly someone who’s willing to explore the full aspects of sports performance, and isn’t just a technical and tactical aspect. We need to bring all those types of skills to bear in partnership with the other members of the team but we do clearly need someone who is very strong on the technical and tactical side of Rugby League. We can put the management mechanisms around that individual to support that individual.
TB: Will the coach you employ be contracted straight through to 2013 or if we have a dreadful Four Nations would you look to someone else?
JR: The aim for me is to look to the long term so we need to be looking towards 2013 but clearly every coach in every system is assessed every time he goes into an annual competition. We need to see if we’re making improvements year on year.
RL: Ideally, the person we approach for the job would see us through to 2013 but the important thing is that the system has stability. the other point is that we have to maximise our talent because if you’re at a numerical disadvantage – ie more people are playing the sport in Australia – then we have to get the best out of the talent we’ve got.
GC: Have you had any applicants so far?
NW: A number of people have made approaches to John, myself or Richard and we’ll be evaluating those in the next few weeks. We’ve probably in the region of half a dozen.
MS: Is it a different type of coaching?
JR: Yes, it is. The players are in a club environment for the bulk of the season and that’s why the coach will have to have credibility in going to work alongside the coaches in Super League to look at individual players and how we support that player within the club environment to develop across the individual areas that make up performance. Using rugby union as an example, increasingly coaches have a team of people around them who are experts in those particular fields. The coach needs to be aware of how to utilise those – they don’t need to be expert in all of them. That’s what we’re beginning to build in terms of the structure and system we have at Red Hall. Looking long term, it’s the clubs who develop the players and bring them through so we need to be supporting them to develop their own systems to help produce more and better quality players.
AW: There are currently 17 players in the Elite Training Squad. Are there plans to increase that number?
The aspiration is to increase that number so we can look at players who might not be in an England squad of 24 now but who could be in or around the England set-up in a couple of years. We’ll sit down with the new coach and discuss the appropriate number.
AW: When does the panel to decide the new coach meet?
NW: We haven’t fixed a date but it will be in mid-December.
AW: How was role compare to what David Waite did?
JR: I can’t comment directly on David because he was prior to my time, but we’ve continued to build on the player-development system that was put in place in David’s time. The significant aspect is bringing in other professionals from other areas that would look at how we add to that system. Ultimately, it’s about someone who can coach and who can develop the system.
RL: It’s an interesting question. There are a lot more resources and people involved and sports science aspects now so it’s a much bigger department than it was in David’s time. But it’s not dissimilar.
DC: When do you want the new coach in place by?
NW: We’d like to move as quickly as we can while doing a thorough and proper job to make sure that every applicant has been explored and discussed. The England team next play in July but a lot of things have to be kept moving by a coach before then.
AW: Will the mid-season Test be in France again?
NW: No, it is likely to be in England.
RL: Almost certainly!
MS: Do you have a venue in mind?
NW: No that’s too premature. But the thought process behind playing it in England is that England will be playing the Four Nations overseas in 2010, we’d like to play England in this country at some stage, which is the right thing to do.
AW: What about what Tony [Smith] said in France about France not being competitive enough?
NW: Their mid-year performance was certainly not as competitive as their performances in the Four Nations. They’ll be doing their own review on how well they did but they made a full contribution to the Four Nations and played strongly in every game until about the hour mark.
GC: Have you considered the idea of England against a Super League All-Stars team?
JR: We’ve looked at it. One of the issues is how we get a level of competition that’s appropriate that supports and prepares the England side. But also we need to look at how we develop the international game in the Northern Hemisphere and how we strengthen the opposition we have in the Northern Hemisphere.
TB: Will we play a Four Nations warm-up either down under or against Fiji, Tonga or the Cook Islands?
JR: That’s the current thinking in terms of how we look at the whole touring environment and how the players prepare and acclimatise. The earlier the team can get down there the better.
AH: This is the first year back with 14 clubs. How do you feel it has gone?
NW: It’s worked well. When the move to move to 14 was confirmed there was great celebration for the removal of the ‘loop’ fixtures which were so unpopular. It’s put longevity into the League campaign and the top-eight put some depth into the season right until round 27 with Bradford thinking they’d qualified by winning at Hull only to find out they hadn’t. The top eight wasn’t as powerful as it could have been – people would have expected some of the powerful clubs like Warrington, Bradford and Hull to have qualified. They might have changed the flavour of that competition.
MS: You’re not going to change anything are you?
NW: No. We effectively have a three-year structure in place. I don’t think there’s an appetite to change things.
RF: What about the Leeds-Hull KR game which kicked off the play-offs when it didn’t really matter who lost?
NW: Well, it did matter. I know what you mean but some of the clubs might need to review their own approach to the games. It’s interesting that the two clubs that lost in the first round also went on to lose in the second round – at home – and got knocked out.
MS: The issue with the play-offs was the lousy crowds.
NW: Indeed. It was a point that was discussed with the clubs and we’re looking to assist the clubs because we all want the same thing – and that’s for the play-offs to be a fitting finale to the season.
RDLR: How did you assess the Clubcall system?
NW: It achieved what the marketeers might call ‘cut through’ at a time when otherwise you wouldn’t expect it. It got people talking about the options that were available. I think some people misunderstood the thought process behind it. People used words like ‘gimmicky’ but the whole essence of the play-offs is that you reward the high-place finishers. That’s the whole point. Every position is incremental to the one beneath it and choosing your own opponents is a manifestation of that advantage. In Australia, St George, who came top, were compelled to play the form team and were bounced out the week after. It stands up on integrity grounds more than anything else and has the by-product of achieving a tremendous amount of publicity for the competition as well so why should we be embarrassed by that?
MS: You did mention possibly amending it a little by allowing the team with the choice the power to pass it on to the next club.
NW: It’s something we need to discuss with the clubs. The structure of the competition is something the clubs will have a view on.
MS: There’s also the idea of allowing the top club to choose any of the other three, which would have given Leeds the chance to choose St Helens this year. That would have been pretty dramatic.
NW: It would but you have to balance that by the fact that St Helens finished second in the competition and won their preliminary match. There has got to be some reward for that or it invalidates what that fixture’s about.
AW: You said anything to do with the competition is down to the clubs, so does that mean the Super League clubs have the right to determine whether the Crusaders have the right to move to Wrexham?
RL: Nigel said [the play-offs] are a matter the clubs would have a view on. On the specific point, it’s a matter for the RFL unless it’s a breach of license and where they play isn’t a breach.
RF: You mentioned earlier on about the extra TV money. I honestly think it gave the clubs a comfort zone and some of the club’s marketing is appalling. We have to make events, like Wigan did with ‘The Big One’ against Leeds and rugby union are doing with double-headers. What thoughts are we giving to doing something different?
RL: The general point about the way the sport promotes the sport is valid. We have to talk about the right things to do for the future. The current economic climate should force you to work even harder and it makes you look at things. We’re talking about some of the things you’re talking about.
MS: Are we in danger of becoming a discounted-value sport? Making tickets very cheap or giving them away can often be counter-productive because if you go back to charging the full price, they might not come back.
RL: Yes, we recognise that and it’s something we’re looking at for the 2013 World Cup. We’re looking at what tickets can we sell in 2011 to the core Rugby League fans thought the clubs so that the Rugby League fans get the best deals and we sell a lot of tickets in advance.
RDLR: Did the Four Nations raise much revenue at the gate? It seems a lot of tickets were given away.
NW: I don’t think that’s right. We don’t know in respect of the two French home games because they’ve kept their own revenues. But we recognised fairly late that we’d have to provide some assistance to the England-France game in Doncaster to make sure that the competition got off to a good start. But turnstile revenues actually exceeded what was in the budget. There were some reasonable attendances but that’s not to say we were entirely happy with them.
RL: It’s an interesting perception because we’re trying to do more selling through the clubs – not just Super League and Championship, but community clubs as well – so it’s interesting if that perception starts to get around.
MS: Could you make it part of a license condition that a club must take and sell or give away a thousand tickets for each international match played in this country?
NW: That kind of thing needs to be looked but one thing we have to careful about is that we have other stakeholders in the shape of Australia and New Zealand who, not unfairly, expect us to account for ticket revenues on a full basis.
RDLR: Can you put your finger on why there has been a decline in international attendances over the last ten or 15 years in this country?
NW: We are doing some research, not just with those who attend but those who don’t to find out why. Back to when you refer, internationals took place on a Saturday afternoon and the Australians and Kiwis only toured every four years. Now, internationals come around far more frequently than they used to do. That’s not an excuse but we recognise that we have to get back to the national team playing in front of crowds of 40 or 50,000, not 23 or 24,000. In the midst, there’s a bit about price, there’s a bit about familiarity etc. One of the challenges facing us as part of the World Cup planning is that we deliver a schedule to make sure most people turn out and make it a proper and true celebration of Rugby League in the Northern Hemisphere.
RL: I think we were hurt by last year’s performances in the World Cup. If we could guarantee the paying public that the first 60 minutes of that Four Nations final is what they’d see most of the time for 80 minutes – then we’d be in the 50, 60, 70,000 stadiums very soon. If England go really well next year then we have something to sell in 2011. We know the Rugby League fans are not stupid but we don’t have the social element that Twickenham has.
MS: Is England v Papua New Guinea going to be a double-header with New Zealand v Australia at Eden Park?
NW: We’re awaiting confirmation of that. The organisers are still looking at other permutations.
MS: Would you support that?
NW: We have to place our trust in the hands of the RLIF. It’s their tournament to organise and we wouldn’t want to be unhelpful.
AW: When’s the next meeting of the International Federation?
RL: There’s one in Singapore in February.
MS: Can you say anything about your proposals for the 2013 World Cup format?
RL: We can’t yet, I’m afraid. We’re still working on it but we hope to have something by February at the latest, if not before. We want to use 2010 to lock agreements in, lock stadia in and local authorities etc. It shouldn’t be long.
MS: Are you getting positive responses from local authorities?
RL: Yes, we’ve had discussions with some of them and some have come to us. It’s all based on economic impact and we can demonstrate a positive economic impact so it’s a good investment. The flip side of a recession is that some local authorities and agencies recognise they have to invest to generate economic impact. The World Cup is looked upon as something really positive by people we’ve spoken to.
MS: What’s happening with Harlequins? They’re in the capital making minimal impact and in my opinion have been a bigger disappointment than Celtic Crusaders. Other club chairmen are asking me whether we need a team in London in Super League.
RL: I have to agree that they have been a disappointment and they haven’t been a success since they’ve moved to the Stoop. I don’t think there’s an easy answer but the Stoop offers a lot of solutions. They have a good team and if they can get it right off the field, they should get good crowds but they have a bit of work to do.
AW: Is the investigation into the Crusaders visa problems still ongoing?
NW: We needed confirmation from the Borders Agency that they’ve concluded their inquiries and that’s only just been received. We’ll be doing a Rugby League-specific inquiry but we couldn’t act beforehand because it could have been prejudicial to the Borders Agency’s findings. We haven’t got the written report yet though.
GC: How do you respond to Neil Hudgell [the Hull KR chairman] saying recently that the game is in danger of being built on foundations of sand with so various clubs in financial problems.
RL: As we said at the outset there’s been an increase in central distributions, we have a salary cap in place and are trying to help the clubs control their costs as much as possible. In the end, each club has to run its own business – that’s only right and proper. We do recognise that we’re in a recession and I’m sure some clubs lost sponsorships, corporate sales and ticket revenue. In the end, they’ll have to cut their cloth accordingly.
RF: Last year the gaps between Challenge Cup rounds were very inconsistent and it affected the momentum of the Cup. Is there a way of addressing this?
NW: You’ve probably heard through your own network, Ray, that we were as candid as we could be with the BBC in putting across that there has to be some structure with a tournament to allow momentum to build up.
RL: We made clear what we thought, in words of one syllable!