Richard Lewis announced he will step down at the end of April as chairman of the Rugby Football League.
“Lewis has brought nothing to the sport.”
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”
Just a handful of colourful comments that have greeted the news that Lewis will move onto become the chief executive of The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon.
It comes as no surprise that he would take up the role considering his well documented interest in tennis, having reached number 68 in the world in and represented Great Britain at the Davies Cup.
He took over the chairman’s role at the RFL in 2002 after being Director of Tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association for two years between 1998 and 2000.
In his ten years as chairman of the governing body there have been many significant changes as the sport had only just come to terms with summer rugby.
After the debacle of the 2000 World Cup which nearly bankrupted the governing body, Lewis has overseen the RFL’s finances go from the red back into the black.
As a result the RFL have been able to offer hand outs and purchase assets from clubs in financial difficulty. Crusaders, the original London Broncos and more recently Bradford have all been subject to additional RFL funding to keep them alive.
And yet the fact we are still seeing clubs hit financial waste ground shows the clubs are failing to manage their finances correctly, which despite heavy criticism from fans and critics alike, is not Lewis’ fault. Until the RFL hire 14 accountants for every Super League club, this sort of reckless spending from club chairmen will continue to occur.
In addition to sorting out the RFL’s finances, Lewis has overseen the successful transition of the franchise system, removing promotion and relegation and giving Super League and Championship clubs peace of mind so that they can plan their financial futures three years ahead of time.
Whilst controversial, the removal of promotion and relegation has seen the Super League become competitive at the top as it is at the bottom has seen the off field standard of clubs rise dramatically. The lower professional leagues have been rebranded into the Championships and the final transition phase will see four new clubs appear in Championship 1 next season to create a strong semi professional set up.
Whilst working part time for Sport England in addition to his RFL role, Lewis’ final legacy will be the community game’s switch from winter to summer rugby.
Whilst summer rugby began in 1996 with the introduction of Super League, the community game first saw rugby league in the sunshine during the 1997 season with the Southern Conference League, which would later become the Rugby League Conference.
Now 15 years later the majority of the community game has switched to summer, with the North West and Yorkshire leagues commencing this summer.
Lewis’ commitment to improve the international game has been second to none. He was behind the re-introduction of the Rugby League World Cup in 2008 after an eight year absence, and as chairman of the Rugby League European Federation he has helped develop France to become a competitive nation. As a result the Catalan Dragons have gone onto become arguably the most successful expansionist club in history of the sport.
“All the best.”
“We hope to see you again, soon.”
Because if Lewis’ replacement can be as forward thinking and prioritise the overall interests of the game as he did, then we should thank our lucky stars our sport is in good hands.