SOUTH Sydney chief executive Shane Richardson lost a house trying to expand rugby league.
That was back in 1999, when the former Cronulla boss risked it all to start a club in Newcastle, England, called the Gateshead Thunder. They lost Stg700,000 and only lasted one year.
But a decade and a half on, “Richo” hasn’t given up. With the Bunnies’ first premiership in 43 years beckoning, he’s committed Souths to the 2015 World Club Series.
Richardson’s friend, Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington, has been pushing for a re-expansion of the World Club Challenge for years. The 1997 version was such a disaster that until now, Australian clubs have baulked.
But it’s Richardson who pushed the negotiations, involving the likes of St George Illawarra’s Peter Doust, Wigan’s Ian Lenagan and Warrington’s Simon Moran, to the point where next February 20 to 22, the World Club Challenge between the winners of the NRL and Super League will be preceded by two other games.
St Helens, as winners of the League Leaders Shield, will take on either Souths or Brisbane at a venue to be determined. The other NRL team will play the beaten Super League grand finalists. One game Friday night, one game Saturday.
The Rugby Football League’s chief executive, Blake Solly, has confirmed that two trophies will be awarded. The WCC trophy goes to the winner of the main match, the WCS shield for the country with the most wins from three matches.
There is a hope that – despite the fact existing TV deals include the WCC so there is no appreciable profit from that area – the concept could be taken on the road, to places like Dubai and Hong Kong, and become at least as big as the Auckland Nines.
But this is not a preview of next year’s World Club Challenge.
In an increasingly globalised world, rugby league cannot survive forever as a local powerhouse and an international oddity. It needs to get on the information superhighway and get up to speed quickly, or risk being swamped.
American and European sports are increasingly marketing themselves to Australians, playing games here and increasing their TV reach. The shrinking resources of newspapers make it easier for them to give these competitions more space.
Richo wants to fight back. Here’s his warplan.
STOP BEING EMBARASSED
FOR some reason rugby league fans are embarrassed about how small the sport is internationally and think trying to expand is pointless. AFL has no such self-doubt – they’ve played many exhibition games in the major capitals of the world. “It’s expectations which are lower than they should be that stop us growing the game,” says Richardson. “We have to change the way we think about the game … young people today don’t think that way. With the internet and social media … every time people are exposed to this game, they like it. We keep thinking within the boundaries of where we are now, not where we could be in five years. Sometimes we limit ourselves in our thinking as administrators but the players don’t have the same view.”
“My main thought is we have to think outside of the box,” he says. “You can’t keep doing the same things and expect to get different results. I think we proved, at Souths, with Perth and Cairns that you can expand the brand. I know ‘brand’ is a terrible word…. The World Club Challenge is about the English clubs trying to build some momentum in Europe and compete with the (rugby union) Heiniken Cup, etc. We’ve been working for the last two years to try and support that. Our sponsors, Delonghi, Fujitsu, Alcitel and Crown have all got a presence in Europe so it’s showing the game has got a greater reach.”
OUR game is splintering; different rules at international, NRL and Super League level make it bewildering for anyone considering taking up the sport. Local bodies change the laws and interpretations without consulting anyone. “We’ve got to have central control, we can’t have different rules in different hemispheres,” says Richo. “We’re trying to make the game more attractive for television – I get that. But we also have to make the rules so that new people understand them. I’m not against changing the rules. I’m against changing them only in the NRL.”
A FIVE YEAR STRATEGY FOR THE WHOLE GAME: INTERNATIONAL, PROFESSIONAL AND GRASSROOTS
RUGBY league had a 100 year head start on rugby union, during which it paid players and union didn’t, but self-interest allowed the 15-man game to dominate globally. “This has been spoken about at CEOs conferences for a while – we’ve got to have a five year plan of where we want to take the game, not just the NRL. We lock in the World Club Challenge, we lock in Nines, whether it’s World Nines or the nines we’re doing now. But it’s whole-of-game.”
FEWER CLUB GAMES
RICHARDSON is one of the few NRL club supremos to publically declare the NRL season too long. “We may have to restrict the number of club games, NRL games, we play to expand beyond those boundaries. I’ve always said – I don’t see the need to play 24 fixtures. One of the challenges we’ve got with the scheduling is that it’s locked into the television deal so we need X number of games. That’s presupposing we can’t have other games to fill those slots. I’m not sure that, if we have an expanded view of the game, Tonga v Samoa wouldn’t be a better game for people to watch on a Saturday afternoon than Souths v Cronulla.’
CONSULT PLAYERS OVER ELIGIBILITY
BRAD Takairangi and Aiden Guerra are just two of the players set to be “poached” from the sides they represented in the World Cup for this year’s Four Nations. Should they be allowed to return to Cook Islands and Italy respectively? “The players want the game to go onto another stage and expand,” says Richardson. “The article with Jarryd Hayne, where he talks about players’ IP … players might be concerned about the number of games they play but they’ll always be involved in matches that expand their IP because they understand the importance of it. Are we listening to what they want? Does Jarryd Hayne, if he doesn’t play for NSW, not want to play for Fiji?”
GET RUGBY LEAGUE ON TV IN MORE PLACES
THE NFL flooded British television with cheap broadcasts before attempting exhibition games at Wembley. “Where do we want to be? If people in the Czech Republic want to watch rugby league, should we charge them when they can watch ice hockey, basketball, soccer … those sports are part of their culture? If we want to have an impact on that culture, then we have to give them some sort of bonus. Making them pay for it is not much of a bonus. You have to get to the point where the US wants to pay big money, not charge them straight off the bat.”
USE NRL PLAYERS TO PROMOTE RUGBY LEAGUE WORLDWIDE IN AN AGE OF NICHE INTERESTS
“THE NFL don’t promote their game in the UK with local players. They bring stars from the US. Why aren’t we doing the same with the Greg Inglises and the Sam Tomkins’ of the world? It promotes the game and sets them up on the world stage. People are sitting on their computers in Moldova and Minnesota taking an interest in all sorts of unusual things that their local media ignores. We need to be one of those things and from my experiences at Souths, I know we already are one of those things because people in those places contact me. Whenever administrators stuff up, a great game like the Roosters-Panthers final compensates for it. The game itself saves the people running it, over and over again.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK