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Long Read Interview: Neil Hudgell

It’s been a fairly big few weeks in the rugby league world here, with a test match in Denver, and the announcement of the worst kept secret in Rugby League, introducing Robert Elstone as the new CEO of Super League, bringing with it some potentially very exciting possible structural changes to the competition, with a vast majority in agreement, and one very loud dissenting voice!

I sat down with Hull Kingston Rovers chairman Neil Hudgell to discuss these seismic changes.

The first subject is the announcement about Super League moving forward, I asked him what is the situation regarding that announcement.

“The current state of play is that Super League has appointed its own CEO in Robert Elstone, who is at heart, very much a life long rugby league fan,” said Hudgell.

“So he understands the game from that perspective, but has been recruited primarily for his commercial and business nous, gained through decades of experience at Premier league football, Sky TV and other places.

“From the Super League’s perspective, the dialogue and conversation rests with Robert to articulate our collective views across the game with the RFL and the Championship clubs, who have been very vocal in how they think the game should go forward.

“It’s at a delicate stage the negotiation, so it’s not for me to start to articulate detailed views that sit outside the direction of travel agreed between the clubs.

“Robert has been mandated to take those discussions forward and reach a conclusion which the super league members are happy with.

“What the competition structure looks like next year, to what extent Super league becomes its own vehicle for supporting its commercial and sponsorship activity is at the heart of that dialogue.

“We see Robert as the catalyst and conduit, to a more vibrant running Super League competition which takes control of its own destiny!

“Obviously I’m well aware that there’s a very loud dissenting voice in Gary Hetherington in all that. I respect the fact that voice is different, and has an opinion that is different, but it needs to be careful that it doesn’t run at a rate of knots, and actually damages the business.

“There is an overwhelming consensus amongst the Super League clubs, at least 10-2 of a desire for change.

“That voice equally needs to remember, that when this current system was put in place, it was mandated on a 7-6 majority.

“He made no gripes and grievances about it then, and it being pushed through on such a narrow majority.

“It’s wholly hypocritical and misleading to recite votes on discreet issues that don’t reflect the general mood of the group and to conveniently forget he was a driving force behind this current structure voted through on the narrowest of mandate and which is clearly busted. He needs to respect the democratic vote as other dissenters (me included) did then.

“The structure we’ve got is broken, it doesn’t work, fans don’t like it, broadcaster doesn’t like it, crowds are down, the product on the field is suffering, it needs fixing.

“You’ve got to fix the elite competition first, and the benefits of that will filter down to the rest of the game. I was in the Championship last year, I could be back there at the end of this, I like to think I see a bigger, game wide issue!

“It’s a nonsense for us to be taking a bottom up view, and placing a disproportionate amount of attention of the views of some people that, frankly in my view have got no track record in the game.

“They need to get back in their box, and let other people that have got an established track record, make the noises and make the decisions.

“I’m particularly talking about Bradford, I find the man a complete irritant, he eulogizes week-to-week from a platform of smoke and mirrors having chewed on the latest business speak self help book.

“I’d like to know whose money he used to buy Bradford, I’d like to know exactly what investment he’s put into that club.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to learn the club was bought out of its own central distributions with little, if any external investment. The governing body have singularly failed to explain what’s got on during that club’s years of multiple ownership and wasted resources and from what I can see from here the picture today is no less murky.

“Of any club, that’s the club that’s had the most stays of execution, and are still there, and everyone would like the Bulls to come back in a very strong way!

“But I anticipate that there will be a resistance to the Bulls, while the man that owns, or purports to own the club is behaving in such a disruptive manner

“So my message in round terms is that, we need a game-wide solution, Robert is tasked with championing that.

“Everyone realises that there is a need for change, and he is mandated to negotiate that change, on the back of a very strong mandate.

Next in the conversation is Gary Hetherington’s announcement that it was a ‘Power Grab’ by certain clubs, which led to Rovers chairman saying he was misleading people!

“He referred in a press release to a 7-5 vote, that he suggests was on a bigger issue than it actually was.

“I’m not prepared to go into detail about it because it’s not appropriate to take it out the room like he already has. I view that as a dereliction of his duties as a super league director

“The trouble is here, you end up with a sideshow of Gary sounding off, he’s one of 12 voices, ten voices have said one thing, one voice has said another, one has voiced opinion both ways.

“He’s smart though, he said what he did to grab the headlines, whip up the championship clubs and cause unrest. We need to rise above it.

Next we talked about Robert Elstone’s announcement that Super League teams need to run a reserve team, and maybe shouldn’t sit at the top table if they don’t.

“As it stands there is clearly a vacuum between 19s rugby, dual reg and first team and the reserve competition would be heartily greeted by everybody!

“I think as a sport we need to have one, I think the direction of travel is for that to be back in, in 2019, that’s certainly my hope, and I think that’s shared by other people.

“There’s a lot of effects from that, not just from player development, but also officials development, because we have an administration at the moment where there’s a lot of concern about the level of officiating.

“I had a really good discussion with Steve Ganson when we were in Denver for the test, and he made a really valid point around where do referees cut their teeth?

“They go straight from 19s to senior rugby, it’s a really important relationship, and it would benefit them as well.

“They’d still be under pressure, but they wouldn’t be going from one extreme to the other, so there’s another real benefit, because integrity seems to be thrown about because of one decision, or another.

“We do need to work holistically and collaboratively with that side of the game as well and help them improve, I think that’s one area where we can do it, with the reserves.”

Next comes a question from Van McIntyre of Chapel Street News, a long time friend of Mr Hudgell, about whether rugby league is maybe being taken away from spectators in this country, with things like a test match in Denver, and the increasing possibility of Super League being played in places such as Toronto and Toulouse?

“I’ve known Van about 45 years, and he makes a really valid point, and this is a personal point of view.

“Where does expansionism fit? I personally think expansionism fits, but it’s got to be working alongside a competition that’s got strong foundations

“At the moment the financial viability of some of the clubs, including my own fully depend on the people that put money into those clubs.

“I think expansionism needs to be controlled, before we can fully embrace it.

“France, I think everybody would agree that Catalans has been a success, I think a second team in France would also be a success.

“They would be able to generate interest off the back of each other, I like Toulouse, I’ve been there, they’ve got a good infrastructure.

“It’s a big city, so for me, as long as they get the stadium right, there is a potential there.

“Again London, they’ve been around 30 odd years, no-one’s really grabbed hold of it, it keeps moving, it’s sort of nomadic but again I can see a strategic need for London.

“The game needs to take a brave decision whether to take control of London, David Hughes has been there forever and a day, he’s done a fabulous job.

“But what’s the vision, and the reason to do it? And that’s probably why there’s a cautiousness about the Toronto experience.

“It could be fabulous, it could open up the TV markets in North America, what’s the problem with Toronto is the logistics of getting there and fixture scheduling!

“So there’s some due diligence that still needs to be done with Toronto, that should have been done before they were allowed into competition.

“Super League clubs are being asked to deal with some of the issues, that should never have been issues if the du diligence had been done in the first place.

“I’ve met the owner of Toronto, he’s a very passionate guy and he’s a top businessman, and there is some potential, but at the minute I think the jury is wondering about the longevity of it, and how it fits with the Super League competition.

“On the logistic side of it, as on the strategic side of it, there’s no way they can repeat this year’s championship, without compromising the integrity of the competition.

“And if weather-wise, climate-wise they can’t play at home for three months, that really is a serious problem that has to be addressed.

“I have a real long-standing issue about integrity, compromising integrity, and there are things that compromise integrity of the competition.

“Fixtures are one, Visas another, so for example Kenny Edwards can get into France, can’t get into the UK, so that’s an advantage.

“There’s a whole range of things that the game needs to tackle on that.

“I don’t want to be downbeat on the Toronto experience, but I do think it hasn’t been given the necessary due diligence, before they were given entry to the competition.”

So where are Rovers with their recruitment for 2019, assuming they are still in Super League?

“I do expect us to be in Super League next season, we’re a lot better, stronger proposition than we were when we went down two years ago!

“We’re a much stronger side, I think our troubles this year have been caused by a horrendous injury list.

“We lost Danny (McGuire) for a while, we lost Shaun Lunt for a while, all our strike players, and our pivot players, we’ve had a lot of time without them this season!

“That’s impacted on us, I know a lot of sides say that, but as a newly promoted side, with obviously a lesser quality, in terms of depth, it’s disproportionately affected us!

“Those players are back, touch wood, we’ve still got a chance of the Eight, it’s not in our hands, see where we are at the end of the weekend’s results!

“But, we’re still in with a chance of the Eight, if we don’t make the Eight we’ve got to try and finish ninth to give us a better fixture run.

“I fully expect us to be there, and then if, as anticipated there is change and the jeopardy reduces it will enable us to grow as a club.

“I think we’ve got kids coming through, Tim’s an astute coach, we’ve got both recruitment done, not yet announced and we’ve got recruitment in the pipeline.

“I think we’re in a position to grow this club quite substantially over the next two or three years!

“This year is the year of jeopardy, get beyond this year, because at the minute we’ve got half the competition, worrying about being in the Middle 8s!

“Now that cannot be good for building sustainable clubs, it just has no logic.”

What scope would there be, with seven less league games, to bring back something like the County Cup competitions, or the Regal Trophy etc?

“It’s not for me to talk detail, there are sensitive discussions going on at the minute.

“The direction of travel, that has been well publicised is that, there is a desire to ditch the 8s structure.

“There is a desire to replace it with something else that has a mechanism for promotion and relegation.

“Beyond that, there’s a whole raft of options around fixturing, and I don’t want to step outside of the conversations that are ongoing at the minute.

“I’m respectful of what the Championship say, and what the RFL say, Robert’s been mandated, and they should be left to get on with that piece of work, and you can speculate as much as you like.”

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