Tributes paid to Jon Dutton as he bids farewell to rugby league

James Gordon
JoN Dutton with Ralph Rimmer and Lindsay Hoyle

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/

Another home World Cup has been and gone, and the man who led the team behind it is leaving rugby league for pastures new.

Jon Dutton confirmed via his Twitter account that he is leaving the sport following the end of his contract as chief executive of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.

He said: “Today is the end of my professional journey in rugby league, an adventure which began in March 2011. On my final day at RLWC2021, I would like to thank all of those that have put their faith in me and the many wonderful people I have worked with and met along the way.

I am very proud of the leadership roles I have been trusted with, and have always regarded working in the sport that I love to be an absolute privilege.

Leading RLWC2021 has been the highlight of my career to date. It has been incredibly challenging, including the debilitating impact that postponement caused. Despite that we have delivered a purpose led inclusive event, given athletes a unique life experience, and reached millions.

Working on RLWC2013 RLWC2017, RLWC2021 along with leading the 2016 Four Nations tournament has given me some incredible opportunities which I will be forever grateful.

For those that have the ability and control, please ensure the international game has the opportunity to become what it is truly capable of. There is exponential growth left with the right approach. RLWC2021 gave a glimpse of international rugby leagues unifying power and reach.

I leave as I started, a lifelong fan of the sport. Without challenge there is no achievement.”

A loss to the sport

Much like the successful 2013 World Cup, the team behind it is being dismantled and seemingly lost to the sport, at least in the short term.

In some ways that is inevitable when World Cup teams are brought together for a specific event on fixed-term contracts.

Indeed it was that which caused headaches when the tournament was postponed by a year, and Dutton previously admitted he had to consider whether he could commit a further year beyond his initial term.

There had been calls for Dutton to have an involvement in Super League or the RFL, who have recently appointed Tony Sutton as their new permanent chief executive to replace Ralph Rimmer.

He fronted some unprecedented challenges during his time in leading the World Cup, navigating through the coronavirus pandemic that threatened to derail not only the tournament, but the sport and the world itself.

Dutton had to stay strong when two of the sport’s biggest nations pulled out, and he showed remarkable resilience and grace in fronting up to some of the challenges and criticisms that the World Cup faced.

That included a fall out over ticket prices, stadium availability and an unfortunate mishap at the World Cup opener at St James’ Park involving pre-match headline act Kaiser Chiefs.

A passionate Leyther, Dutton was always pragmatic, professional and passionate in his approach, dealing in an open and honest way with the media and the stakeholders of the game.

He carried himself in a manner that exuded confidence and authority, but with the humility and understanding required in a sport with significant challenges, as well as its desperation for growth and acceptance.

Almost throughout his tenure, there were calls to ensure that Dutton was involved in rugby league long-term, and that he wasn’t lost to the game off the back of the tournament as the likes of Sally Bolton, now Wimbledon Tennis chief executive, have been in the past.

There are often theories that rugby league needs ‘outsiders’ to come in to improve the sport – Dutton proved on the contrary. There are plenty of people with rugby league running through their veins that have the professional ability to do what it takes. Understanding the very nature of rugby league is pivotal to finding its path to success.

Since the end of the World Cup, Dutton has joined the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships as a board member, as well as retaining his place as a major events panel member at UK Sport.

Prior to taking on his role with RLWC2021 in February 2018, Dutton was Director of Projects & People at the RFL for four years, and was previously Chief Operating Officer at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.

Perhaps the right role wasn’t available for Dutton, or perhaps he felt that another sport or industry would be best served by his leadership and management. Either way, there will be a tinge of sadness amongst many in rugby league that more wasn’t done to ensure he had a position where he could influence the sport’s navigation of some testing times ahead.

Maybe the forthcoming IMG revolution will cause new doors to open.

Thanks for the memories

Reaction to Dutton’s farewell has been overwhelmingly thankful to his impact.

Forty20 Live said: “Thanks for the memories Jon.”

Andy Preston tweeted: “The biggest crime is that somebody who excelled as an administrator in the sport is concluding his final day involved professionally in League. Why do we let the diamonds escape and stockpile the lumps of coal?”

Steven Hall: “Tremendous work John, good luck in your new venture i hope you return to RL sooner rather than later.”

Alan Robinson: “Best wishes Jon for whatever you do you have done great things for the sport.”

Ian Roberts: “Congratulations on a job well done Jon. Best wishes for your next challenge. It’s been a pleasure working with you.”

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