Jon Wells on the return of Super League and the challenges ahead

Castleford’s director of rugby and Sky Sports pundit, Jon Wells, gives an inside view on the challenges facing Super League clubs during and after the lockdown ends.

We are living in an unnerving and uncomfortable time, working hard to adapt to a new normal, with what are certainly abnormal daily and horrific death-toll announcements punctuating our early-evening thoughts.

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It is also a new and uncomfortable time for us all involved in sport; for fans, players, owners, administrators and pundits alike, the absence of the thrill and ritual of the weekly rounds weighs heavily on us all.

And as we applaud the tireless efforts of our frontline NHS staff and key workers, we can certainly understand the perspective here.

Sport is not life or death; it is not even important in the wider context of what COVID-19 has visited on many thousands of families in the UK. And we must keep that thought at the forefront of our minds when we consider any way back for sport, including rugby league.

And yet naturally and inevitably we do talk, and often, about how we get back to where we were, how we resume something resembling normal life – and sport does have a huge role here. Sport is a social glue; it brings communities together; towns and cities coalesce around the teams that represent them.

So, what is the route back for Super League, what does it look like and what are the challenges it must overcome?

There are many obstacles, and significant ones at that. But they are not insurmountable. No, it is unlikely that we will see games being played until at least the end of June and it is unlikely that we will see crowds in stadia, probably for the remainder of the season. The finances of the game as a whole (and the clubs in particular) are being severely stretched and yet there remains genuine optimism that the 2020 season can be fulfilled in a safe – and credible – way.

The first obstacle is arguably the hardest to overcome. Players will not be allowed to train as a team, let alone play, until testing procedures reach a level that satisfy and exceed the demands currently upon them for NHS and key workers. Best estimates suggest that this is at least a month away.

As and when players and support staff can be assured safety, then we can start to think about how we get games up and running again. And this is where it gets interesting.

The Government’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS) is proving to be a lifeline for all clubs at present. It has allowed them to furlough staff and players who have, across the leagues, accepted temporary salary reductions of up to 50 per cent, enabling a holding pattern of sorts to be assumed and reducing the financial haemorrhaging that clubs would face without any matchday income to a “manageable” position, albeit in the short term only. When the JRS comes to an end, the real challenges begin.

It is naive to think that the game will survive without additional financial stimulus because the reality is that all clubs rely heavily on (indeed build their business models around) the revenue generated by match-day crowds, through ticket and merchandise sales as well as secondary spend on food and drink.

These crowds are likely to be absent for some time after the season resumes. In order to fulfil a credible season, Super League will have to play behind closed doors.

If you accept that position, then you must also accept that the game needs to be creative about how it approaches this problem. Playing games behind closed doors will require additional financial input (most likely from a compassionate Treasury via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – and there are reasons for optimism here).

It will also require further cost-cutting measures, which may also offer us a clue about how fixture lists look and when and how matches are played. There would still be significant costs associated with games behind closed doors.

Stewarding would still be required to ensure fans aren’t tempted to gather or gain entry when their team plays, and you have a requirement too for doctors to be present to ensure the safety of the players (another moral dilemma, given that the current protocol is for three doctors at each fixture played – the thought of taking 18 doctors out of the NHS pool for each round of Super League is unimaginable at the present time).

Which brings us to the look and feel of a “typical” round of Super League, should these initial but significant obstacles be overcome. There has, in recent days, been the development of an increasingly cogent argument for double or even triple headers to accommodate weekly rounds, perhaps on a rotational basis where one club “plays host” to up to three fixtures, including their own, which would certainly minimise the ancillary costs associated with staging games.

Then there is the issue with volume and player welfare. And this is where our sport has proven to be nimble and forward-thinking. There has been a key operational rule change made by the RFL in the last week which removes, for the remainder of the 2020 contractual year (which runs until 30 November, and more on that shortly) the minimum salary requirement for a Super League player. This effectively widens the pool of players from which club coaches can select matchday squads (as all clubs in 2020 run a reserve grade) enabling an element of rotation without additional “salary-ing up” costs which would be much needed in the highly probable event of more than one fixture a week.

Finally, the league has some time built-in because of the contractual year-end for all Super League players. With the current player contract year running from 1 December 2019 to 30 November 2020, there is effectively an additional six weeks in which to conclude a season after the traditional Grand Final showpiece which is usually staged on the second Saturday of October.

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