To understand how Shane Richardson’s mind works when it comes to promoting rugby league, you only have to look at what he is doing as part of Brisbane’s bid to become home to the 17th NRL franchise.
Last Thursday, the former South Sydney Rabbitohs general manager of football and CEO was outside the home of high-flying Aussie Rules football side Brisbane Lions ahead of their clash with Geelong Cats, driving interest in the proposed Firehawks team.
Richardson is not one for sitting back and as well as consulting on the Firehawks bid, the straight-talking Australian has recently, off his own back and through no motivation other than a passion for rugby league, written a paper on the value of the sport on these shores.
The paper, which has been submitted to the NRL – including CEO Andrew Abdo – as well as three people involved with clubs in this country, pulls no punches in its assessment of where rugby league in the UK is heading at the moment and why a strong sport in the Northern Hemisphere will benefit league as a whole.
And Richardson, who helped oversee Gateshead Thunder’s entry into Super League, served as Hull FC’s chief executive and sat on the Super League board, believes little has changed since he was last involved in this country two decades ago.
“My point about it is the understanding of the totality of the game from sitting on the Super League board,” Richardson said. “I thought the game would grow and go on, but it’s stagnated and gone backwards – and the reason is because it’s the same model in place as when I was there in 2000.
“It makes me sick to the guts to think that the game is going to go backwards at the rate it is.”
Richardson is not the only person who feels this way, with Huddersfield Giants winger Jermaine McGillvary espousing similar views about the lack of progress in rugby league both domestically and internationally on the back of helping the Combined Nations All Stars to victory over England last Friday.
Those views are something Super League’s interim chairman and McGillvary’s club chairman Ken Davy is acutely aware of, and while he takes a more optimistic view of rugby league’s future, he is well-aware of the issues facing the game.
“The reality is, he (McGillvary) is reflecting a message which has been coming out loud and clear from many within Super League and other parts of the game,” Davy said.
“One of the reasons I’m sat in the job I am is because there is a determination within the game to put things right.
One of the reasons I’m sat in the job I am is because there is a determination within the game to put things right.
Super League interim chairman Ken Davy
“We’ve got a fantastic game, we’ve got great supporters, but the reality is we’re not as big a game as we should be and deserve to be – and I think that’s something we all want to see improve.”
Davy’s reasons for optimism stem from the fact Super League is drawing strong television viewing figures and, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and the current capacity restrictions at stadiums, had been seeing crowd numbers steadily growing again, as well as increasing sponsorship interest.
But Richardson’s view is that Super League and the RFL being separate entities is holding it back both from a commercial and sporting viewpoint, calling on the formation of an independent body similar to the Australian Rugby League Commission which was established in 2012 to run the sport there and take the 13-man code forward.
“The bottom line is, you can have all these grandiose ideas, but if it’s not part of a business plan that’s workable then there’s no way you can come up with an idea in your game you can drive through,” Richardson said.
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“The start has to be: This is what our business plan looks like, this is what we look like now and this is what we’re going to look like over the next three to five years – then you’ve got something to sell to someone.”
Davy is not in favour of an independent commission but is instead seeking a form of realignment between Super League and the RFL, with the two bodies having been separate entities since the flagship competition broke away midway through 2018.
Realignment talks are set to start next week with the hope of being concluded by late August and while Davy is adamant it will not simply be the case of returning to the old arrangement, he does see the two organisations being closer together as key to growing rugby league from the grassroots up.
“I believe Super League has the opportunity and responsibility to develop the game and that’s why the Super League board and club owners devote the amount of time and resources they do to the game,” Davy said.
I’ve been really surprised and gratified by the tone of the correspondence I’ve received…They see merit in what I’ve been saying – even if it does mean old power bases being broken down.
Former Super League board member Shane Richardson
“We do believe in the value of Super League and what it brings to the game as a whole.
“The first step is to have a unified game, which is what we hope will emerge with realignment – notwithstanding we’re not going back to the structure we had before. We can use that as a launchpad to promote the game and personalities within the game.
“Super League and rugby league is at the heart of so many communities, the players tend to be seen around the towns and go to the local clubs and support them. They are the heart of the communities themselves.”
Although coming at the issue from different angles, it might be argued that Richardson and Davy are not too far apart in their views on how rugby league in this country moves forward and the former has been clear his paper is merely a starting point for conversations around where the sport goes.
For his part, Richardson has been taken aback by the response he has received since going public with his views late last week and is set to reveal more details to his proposals in the coming days.
“I’ve been really surprised and gratified by the tone of the correspondence I’ve received since I went public and also by the calibre of the people within the British game who have been behind it,” Richardson said.
“They see merit in what I’ve been saying – even if it does mean old power bases being broken down.”