Dissecting Shane Richardson’s plan for British Rugby League

The much-publicised paper from former Super League board member and NRL head of strategy Shane Richardson on the restructuring of British rugby league has been released.

It includes some detail from a letter submitted to NRL CEO Andrew Abdo as background about a possible investment from Down Under in the game in the northern hemisphere.

The full paper is available here.

In this article, we will break down some of the headline sections.

An independent commission

“The game is never going anywhere until smart independent business minds look objectively at the business, and most importantly are not bogged down by the past and vested interests , but look to invest in the future.

We have many quality people investing in the game but they, as business operators, must understand that creating a plan for the WHOLE of the game is crucial for investors, players and most importantly supporters. That is why an independent commission (IC) similar to the ARLC needs to be set up as a matter of urgency.”

This is undoubtedly the key element of the paper and is much needed. Super League is governed by the self-serving clubs within it, and although the RFL does have an “independent board”, their resources are spread thinly and they are responsible for the whole of the game in this country. They are unlikely to recommend decisions that are good for, say, Super League but are bad for, say, Championship clubs, as they have a responsibility to them all.

The biggest hurdle to this will be the existing clubs relinquishing their power – heck, they couldn’t even allow their self-appointed executive chairman to make his own decisions.

A new name for Super League

“The next step would be to get rid of the toxic Super League name – a fresh start”

This is one that we have written about before, particularly in light of the failed European Super League movement in football. The Super League brand has become anonymous – rugby league needs to figure out a way forward. “British Rugby League” was a previous suggestion, though might seem a bit “brexit-y” these days and of course doesn’t factor in French and other overseas involvement. Utilising an acronym (like the NRL, NFL, NBA etc) may well be a better way forward.

The chosen clubs

“In my opinion there are only five clubs that are automatic in the eight from England. Wigan, Saints, Warrington, Leeds one team from Hull. The other three clubs should be beneficial to the growth of the game and the value of the business. Areas such as Newcastle, York, Wales and London stand out BUT this is for the IC to decide. Tough fair decisions will have to be made, but the supporters must feel that the decisions are for the betterment of the game, not for the political and vested interests of the past.”

Let’s be honest, the ‘one team in Hull’ comment is simply done to not alienate Hull KR fans; as there’s no way a merged team will be competing. It’s hard to argue beyond the five clubs chosen – they seem like the teams that are most likely to be able to stand on their own two feet without central funding. The rest of the current Super League clubs could quite easily be interchanged with others from outside the top flight, as long as the central funding remained.

The potential other “three UK clubs” includes London – who have previously had 20 seasons in Super League and have still struggled to settle down; York – which, ultimately, is still in Yorkshire and has had a team since 1901; Wales – which was rejected for a franchise back in 1998 and had the failed Crusaders franchise though may be able to do better if operated by the Wales RL; and then Newcastle, who are becoming the most credible ‘outsider’ due to their facilities and player development in the north east.

THROWBACK: Wales: Rugby league’s forgotten expansion plan?

The key part of choosing teams is how do you do it without alienating existing supporters, clubs and supporters. One of the biggest failures of rugby league’s failed expansion attempts in the past three decades has been alienating its current fans, and then eventually alienating the new fans when the expansion plans built on sand collapse.

No promotion and relegation in first two years

“In the beginning there has to be a two year moratorium on promotion and relegation to allow the competition to become embedded. One team promotion and relegation will start from the end of year three. Any team that is promoted, must meet strict criteria to show they value add to the game – Finance / Participation Growth / Stadia etc”

Some short-term pain for those not chosen, but this seems like a sensible approach – though perhaps doesn’t address potential for ‘yo-yo’ clubs (not something I personally have an issue with), or indeed protection for the overseas teams (presumably only English teams will be able to be relegated)

What about outside Super League?

“The second tier or championship as it is called should be a MAXIMUM of 12 teams – a semi pro competition without promotion or relegation. If you are unable to survive, then expressions of interest can be called for to replace them. The third tier should be an amateur competition.”

We’re heading to d-day for the semi-professional clubs outside of Super League. Those without sizeable fanbases or their own ground are simply going to be lost to the game. Even community clubs have their own facilities; and perhaps that is the reality that the likes of Swinton and Oldham have to face up to. No longer can they simply exist off central funding; they have to create assets of their own. Oldham seemed to have missed an opportunity by not developing the Whitebank Stadium facility, and have looked on while a 10th tier football team has managed it.

Assuming the 12 Super League teams come from the existing 36 clubs, a 12 team Championship means 12 current Championship and League 1 teams will depart from the professional game.

Teams from France

“The game cannot sustain more than 10 teams at this stage. To create this 10 team competition, eight should come from outside England and two external. The French sides are obvious but other expansion sides may come, in the future, but conditional on being from financially reputable organisations who can see the value of our three/five year business plan. Expansion for expansion sake is a recipe for disaster. I am sure that with two teams from France, and with the assistance of the ARLC, that we could broker a much better deal with the French media.”

Although the paper is entitled “restructuring British rugby league” is does include space for two French teams, and also mentions the international game. This may well be part of the problem – what’s best for British rugby league might not necessarily be best for France or the international game, and vice-versa.

France’s own ambitions may need to be considered, and that surely goes above and beyond the “British rugby league” commission.

RUGBY à TREIZE: Big interview with French Federation president Luc Lacoste

The impact on the international game

Almost half the paper is devoted to the international game. A lot of it makes sense, such as regular series’ between Australia, New Zealand and England.

It also mentions: all international games to be played when the season has finished; Europe can play tests in the Northern hemisphere during the year but without NRL players; consider player welfare and fatigue with a rest year every four years; play State of Origin in season.

Heaven knows how much money has been spent by International Rugby League, but the much vaulted international calendar still hasn’t come to fruition, some eight years after it was meant to be top priority after the 2013 World Cup.

As a result, the international game has lost the regular test series’ – and the relatively consistent Tri/Four Nations approach that it managed for a decade up to 2016.

The trouble for “British rugby league” is how much weight it has in making Australia and the NRL to agree to it.

Richardson’s conclusion

“International rugby league and the English game are hugely undervalued. The reason is simple; it is a divided and decaying sport. It requires a laser-like approach to establish a business plan that everyone gets behind.

It needs a clear leadership model to establish an axe head to approach the right people in the business and rugby league world. It needs to establish true corporate governance, so that it can carry out with credibility the plan that is created by the IC.

People NEED to know who is in charge and in control to negotiate. Once we get that investment, it cannot just be wasted on giving it all to the top tier, but to the vision of growing the WHOLE game.

If investment grows so will revenue and that will assist the top tier. It is the golden egg for the media. But the media want a partner that has vision and a future they can grow with and invest in long term.”

Someone needs to be put in charge with a mandate to implement a strategy over at least a 10-year period.

Whether those at the top want to relinquish their control for the sake of rugby league, remains to be seen.

About James Gordon 7043 Articles
Love Rugby League editor. Founded the website back in 2005. Worked with a range of clubs and sponsors during that time. Also commentates for BBC.

29 Comments

  1. Rugby League’s greatest strength is surely its historic and beloved hold within communities and families.
    I see no loosening of that and yet still the two most paraded features of the sport to the wider world are the paradoxical pairing of it being both “the greatest” while at the same time, as a matter of existential importance urgently “needing to expand”.
    Whatever sport you first make a deep emotional attachment to (fall in love with, if you will) is usually your personal favourite, but that hardly qualifies it consequently as “the greatest”. Like religious faith affiliation is usually simply a result of accident of birth or culture. Indeed the idea of there being an objectively clear cut “greatest” sport is no different to somebody claiming that curry is the world’s greatest dish. It’s a dubious claim, but worse, it sounds daft. Pretty well every sport in which people compete makes for engaging spectacle. I’ve seen magnificent games in every code of football or rugby and more than I’d prefer of dull ones in all.
    I sense an insecurity in the need to declare the faith every time people speak to the game. And as for evangelising the wider world with the greatest game it’s never seen: Gaelic football, Aussie Rules and countless more, thrive healthily and adored within their more parochial orbits because the sport and its fans understand confidently the place it has in their world. No need to sell, simply enjoy it, like your predecessors.
    So I return to the start.
    Rugby League has no need to feel any threat any more than it has to parade hyperbolic claims. It is simply a great sport and will always be a beloved part of the wider sporting life and its own gradual evolution in this world.

  2. Whilst there are elements of the international game I would support – like the tri nations – this feels like a rehash of ” build it and they will come” club expansion plans that have never been successful or had fan support.

    Why these expansion plans always include a reduction of top flight teams – more repeat fixtures – and no relegation for now – Fans dont like a closed shop in the UK.

    Forget the constant naval gazing of club reorganisation or rebranding . What RL needs is a 12 month Calender of profile events in club and international rugby that you can market to the masses. That mean every month we have something to announce – fill the gaps between magic – challenge cup – grand final. Personally Id start the league on xmas day morning on terrestrial TV with one derby and full programme boxing day space the first two months with games every other week.
    Really embrace working class roots and make tickets cheaper tied to minimum wage – £20 max for the majority, union discounts and cheap for kids. Potential sponsors want full stadiums and exposure.

    • That’s a nice idea but the reality is that putting it on terrestrial TV and charging fans less will both lose everyone money that they don’t have

  3. I agree with some of the above comment but it fails to acknowledge the unique position rugby league is in, namely, the existence of rugby union. Of course, the two games are very different, but nevertheless similar enough to be competing for TV money, media attention, spectators, and most importantly of all, players.Unless league expands its boundaries and widens its appeal it will lose out on all the above. Sure, Aussie rules and Gaelic football do ok and are strong in their heartlands, but there’s no Aussie Union rules, or Gaelic Union for them to compete with. We have to face up the fact that, as things stand, league does not appeal to the wider audience that it used to before rugby union went professional. Up until that point, if the casual viewer wanted to watch highly skilled and professional rugby players then league was their destination. So too for aspiring players who wanted to test themselves in a professional environment and be paid to do so.

    League is no longer something, in the UK at least, that people outside the heartlands aspire to be associated with in the same numbers as they did in a previous era, whether it be as a specator, TV viewer, or business person or sponsor. Rugby Union is seen in many people’s eyes as the rugby code of glamour and aspiration, whilst league is perhaps viewed as a parochial sport of limited ambition.

    The Richardson report has much to commend it. However its biggest single failing is its failure to recognise the cancerous effect of promotion and relegation, a two year moratorium of which would be insufficient. Promotion/relegation is something that corrodes the game from within, encouraging short termism and financial mismanagement. Additionally, it devalues the Championship by labelling it as a competition that shoud be avoided, when it could in fact be marketed as a thriving competition for clubs and players of semi professional status. I personally would rather pay to watch a team being competitive in a semi professional league rather than one on the wrong end of lopsided scorelines on a regular basis due to them being “out of their depth”.

    The whole attachment to promotion/relegation is based on misty eyed sentimentality rather than logic and a clear strategy. Its absence would not render the top flight as a closed shop in the truest sense. Clubs outside the top flight could still be elected to the highest level of the game should they be judged to have have the necessary infrastructure and resources to be a value adding member of that competition.

    In order for meaningful change to occur to the British game however, the game itself must acknowledge the painful truth that it is dying; not a sudden or dramatic death, rather one that is insidious,(the danger of which is that it will possibly to late for meaningful action when the diagnosis is belatedly accepted).

    • Yes, totally agree here. Relegation and promotion is for football only. The only way to arrive at a league with teams representing the nation is to have a closed shop. A challenge cup group stage could allow access to the top clubs.

  4. Well I would have put money on the “big 5” being automatic choices but what makes them think that a Hull based club is any better than say Castleford, Wakefield or Huddersfield. Wigan do not own their ground and never will, so why are they in or is it because they have the clout at board level.
    Saints and Leeds yes I can see them along with Warrington because financially and facilities they have locked in but from then on it’s a type franchise system choosing again and won’t work. Newcastle and London have been tried before and there is no real fan base at either and Cumbria is always thrown in the mix.
    The only thing I totally agree on is the dropping of the name Super League as I’ve always said dropping “ Rugby” from the name gave the onus to Union to monopolise it which they have as if you say Rugby to anyone they automatically thing Union and boy have they milked it.

  5. •Name the sport RFL – Aussie style
    •Top div of 12 pro teams (premiership)
    •Second div of 12 pro/semi-pro teams
    •Third tier of 12 amataur teams.
    •Keep Challenge Cup on terrestrial TV.
    •Scrap magic and replace with ‘origin’ type series (War of the Roses?)
    •Scrap magic and replace with top tier cup – on terrestrial TV is a must
    •Enhance derby matches where practicable Hull FC v Hull KR – awsome!
    •Yes to invest in teams that will add to the game e.g Bradford, Newcastle, but also those who have unique appeal e.g London, All Gold’s, Cornish Rebels and what about a wasps brand in Coventry?
    •Dont forget about the heartlands, Batley,Dewsbury,Cas,Keighley etc all bring validity to the table. And support Cumbrian teams as a matter of urgency – week away glamping in the lakes and catching an RFL game while your there? Who wouldn’t want that!
    •Build the French game – they have, do and will love the game more and more and this will have a force magnifying effect helping to catipult the game at home and abroad.
    •Regular international series – GB, France, Aus, NZ and PNG and tap in on the Pacific Rim passion for the game (Tonga v Samoa – can’t get better).
    • I could go on…

  6. The rules need to be looked at.Rugby League is a simple game with complicated rules. I would start by scrapping the 6 again,and the 7 tackle rule should be removed when the ball goes dead when kicked inside the 20 meters.

  7. Some good elements to the paper but also some clearly misguided ones. I’m all for expanding the game but for me why are we always so insistent at doing this at the cost of killing those clubs who have history, heritage and good support. It seems they just want city clubs.
    I think we should brand ourselves on the very strength that we are predominantly northern, nothing wrong with that. Maybe they should look at gate receipts for British clubs when the likes of Catalan come to town or London, Toronto etc – these fixtures hurt clubs financially and the games have little atmosphere due to a lack of travelling support. Surely recognising the passion of Cumbrian teams, Cas v Fev, the wooden derby would bring energy and crowds.
    One club from Hull is a joke and if it’s a hint of wanting to merge then it’s completely ignorant of the area and would be tantamount to civil war.

    • A merged club from Hull!!
      As I said when Super League plans first suggested the idea. If you merge my team with the opposition then it has ceased to exist and I will not go and watch whatever you call the new monster.

  8. The dissection is unnecessary.
    Let’s just hope it’s discarded with the rest of the rubbish as soon as possible.

  9. As usual, this was written by someone without a clue. To include clubs such as Newcastle Thunder, London and York is a joke, none of them is remotely self-sustaining, nor do they have the fan base to survive. Worse still is to suggest merging the 2 Hull clubs, this never works. Ideally, super league needs 15 clubs, not 12 with no promotion or relegation, the same as the NRL.

  10. Toronto had more road support than many M62 clubs

    the wooden derby would bring nothing concerning national exposure

    We have to get relevant in a big enough sector of society. Rugby union going professionall increased and still increases the pressure….as MP has articulated very well some comments above

  11. This is brutal to say the least.
    I kind of predicted something similar to this and I think the final cut will end up being this or similar.
    We are going to see a number of clubs either fold or go to the amateur ranks.

    This season will be the last for many clubs as professional or semi professional clubs.

    But really this in my opinion should have been openly discussed as far back as 2018 when Super League wrestled control of the game, and for me whatever happens the first thing that needs to change is the name of the competition(s)starting with ditching the Super League name as that to me is tainted with failure.

    Maybe rebrand it properly as the RFL a la NRL style or NFL style.

    Change is coming and fast.

  12. All Toronto did was rely on UK and overseas players to form a team because there was no feeder stream whatsoever in Canada. To suggest that they had more travelling support than any of the M62 clubs is laughable, they probably had less than a few hundred and were far less well supported than any other super league club.

  13. Breakaway super league in football, whole country and media up in arms, because supporters don’t want closed shop of self interested clubs. Rugby league did it with Super league and got away with it. It’s been a disaster, the reason it’s in such a mess, now this guy wants to repeat it on a bigger scale, just 5 clubs!! The only reason they are financially better off, is Super league has creamed off all the Sky money, kept all other clubs struggling. Supporters at traditional clubs have deserted in droves because they feel cheated and excluded. All the expansion clubs bar Catalan have been flops and just made the game smaller, this is the final nail in the coffin

  14. This paper is in reality no different to the one originally proposed when the Murdoch empire murdered RL back in 96, it was doomed to fail then and has slowly rotted away, through no fault of the players or amazing fans, greedy board members and directors of this sport have a lot to answer for!!!
    Mergers will NOT work…. Fact
    Trying to move the sport will NOT work….. Fact
    It is a northern game in the uk just as it’s a southern game in France
    If you want to make it 12 teams make it 3 from Yorkshire, 3 from Lancashire, 3 from Cumbria and 3 from France, use the Premiership as feeder clubs to the top tier.
    The game is loosing players in their droves, once a professional club releases a player back to the amateur game the majority just give up as they now believe they will never make it, so the amateur club adult sides are made up of lads that just want to play Rugby.
    Compare the crowds at League games compared to Union games there is nothing in them, so clearly it’s the sponsorship deals and marketing and possibly the handouts from the RFU that keep their game going strong.
    Guys all that will happen is what is already been happening for the last 15 years all the best players and coaches will end up playing kick and clap unless we can get super league and the RFL as one and make some good media and marketing decisions by people who know what they are doing.
    Just my opinion !!!

  15. Could someone please explain why the club given super league status 8 weeks prior to the start of the season is given 50% less than the rest of the super league teams.Not really a level playing field is it

  16. I think its time for the rfl to split from super league. Take the name rugby league,take the challenge cup and keep in the international unit. in other words let super league go it alone as a tv sport, because that is what it is now. It wont even have a name soon as womens football is now seen as super league on sky. Re build from grass roots in a sustainable manor , supported by sunday crowds, a terrestrial tv deal and sponsorship from companys that are gonna get tv exposure through tv audiences.

  17. why the kick and clap comment, there is obviously more to the game than that. Maybe rugby union is more for embracing other sports and learning from them as they have done from our sport. try not to be so narrowminded and look outside the box and you may find answers.

  18. This “plan” is from a man who played a big part in effectively killing off rugby league in north east, by merging Gateshead with Hull and guess what, his plan would see Hull merge once again, with Hull KR losing out now.
    We need more clubs in Superleague, not less, we definitely don’t want to kill clubs off, with a reduction to 10 & yet more loop fixtures long with a reduction in our professional player pool.
    He obviously has no idea about the culture in this country and that local rivalries play a very important part and by definition, exist because of the close proximity of clubs.
    I think there’s a genuine typo by whoever typed his plan, as he says & I quote:
    “The game cannot sustain more than 10 teams at this stage. To create this 10 team competition, eight should come from outside England and two external”, but he then goes on to mention 2 teams from France.
    He speaks of including London, Wales, York and Newcastle in his new Superleague or ERL (or whatever he wishes to call it), no disrespect to them, but sadly gates at those clubs would only reduce the overall attendances.
    He speaks of only 20 pro clubs in Europe, with 8 full time pro in UK and 2 in France, with another 12 British clubs only part time pro, the rest reduced to amateur status.
    There are so many holes in his plan, he really needs to keep his nose out of rugby league in the UK and concentrate on the issues in his own back yard.

  19. Regarding promotion and relegation: There are always those who want to get rid of it outright or suspend it for long periods of time. Those people have no idea what they’re talking about, and the SL did suspend pro-rel for a long period and it did nothing to help the game.

    What you need is: If a club wins promotion, that club avoids relegation for two seasons. Meaning even if it ranks last, it would be the second-to-last club that gets relegated. That is enough time for the club to “adjust” and “improve” without screwing over lower and poorer clubs. At the same time if that club continues to be bad, it’ll end up being relegated in its third season. This rule should be made permanent.
    ———

    Regarding getting rid of the 3rd-tier professional league: I don’t see the point of it. And if you do go that route, then the 1st-tier and 2nd-tier leagues need to increase their team numbers, not decrease it. Otherwise you’re cannibalizing the game from both directions; a lot of people out of work and a lot of fans lost.

    Consider making Championship as 16 teams divided into Conferences of 8 clubs each, and the Super League as 12 teams with Conferences of 6 clubs each. Now you can get rid of League 1.
    ———

    The IRL and RFL wouldn’t need to worry about Australia and New Zealand for international games, if there was more done to develop the game in say Serbia, Turkey and Jamaica where there is an active scene. Unlike Canada and the US where there’s a high likelihood of public apathy still, those three countries — because of their comparatively limited number of professional sports options — have far more potential for mainstream attention and growth. It would also boost the game in neighboring Greece and other Balkan states, and the ripple effects on the Jamaican and Turkish diasporas would do wonders for the game across the world.
    ———

    If the RFL and SL had large sponsors they wouldn’t be so dependent on and handicapped by Sky Sport. Rugby Union not only has large corporate backers, they get UK taxpayers to foot the bill by way of sponsors such as Royal Bank of Scotland which is 2/3 owned by the UK government. Has that been brought up by anyone?

    RU is airing on Amazon Prime now, and they got tens of millions for a few cup competitions. RL can’t get anything from anyone? The digital marketing and social media is poor too. RFL/SL isn’t doing anything to reach Black and Brown communities in England which is a huge untapped market for them, and is what the game needs to be relevant among young people and big cities in general.

    RFL/SL needs need to hire in-house professional filming crews with professional equipment so that all games are shot well and consistent. That’s why RL can’t get streaming platforms to buy their rights, because there’s nothing to buy.

    • I recognise the need to acknowledge RL heritage, traditions, and its “Northern-ness”,together with its local rivalries. Such derby matches are the essence of the sport.
      However, for those, like me, who want elite/fully professional RL to thrive, it needs to be showcased via broadcast and the media on a wider geographical scale within the UK, thus attracting more consumer and services sponsorship brands like Warrington’s “Hoover”.
      This can be achieved by replacing “Super League”with a sustainable descriptive sports title:
      “13sRUGBY”
      This branding can sit comfortably with all levels of RLFC clubs. Yes, it has a French element, but it also associates with “7sRugby”, which is of course an instantly recognisable rugby format.
      I much prefer league, but also enjoy Union, but if you take last Saturday’s Lions test match- a kickathon- which was described as a brilliant rugby display in the print media, then RL has nothing to worry about as being an outstanding entertainment.
      By adopting a fresh title, just as we did in the 1920s by dropping “Northern Rugby Football Union”, we can shed our image whilst retaining our proud roots.
      International RL needs a strong France, with Catalans Dragons and increasingly Toulouse Olympique.
      Stronger international RL benefits the entire sport by enhancing its reputation, giving the RFL a chance of becoming financially viable.
      Unlike most,I don’t subscribe to the view that you must develop grass roots RL around the UK before establishing a franchise club, if franchise is the preferred method. You do need to compete from the outset though with a strong squad, which requires entrepreneurial investment or perhaps philanthropic commitment for the love of the sport.
      Think about the current “Hundred”cricket-almost an identical product to 20/20, but well marketed because of sponsorship, national coverage of regional or city teams, and attended by many fans who really do not know their cricket at all, but who are captivated and well entertained by a spectacular presentation.Since when do you need to have been a player to be a huge USA Basketball team fan? So I don’t believe you necessarily need much, if any of a local playing infrastructure first.It can develop naturally, unforced, from enhanced social media coverage, leading to sports shops stocking kits etc., etc.

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