Rugby league chief comes out fighting
In a week that has seen a successful move to Monday night Super League and will culminate on Saturday and Sunday with the Magic Weekend taking place in Manchester for the first time, Rugby Football League chief executive Nigel Wood has come out fighting.
With Bradford Bulls' financial plight prompting fresh concerns for the health of the sport and MP Andy Burnham leading calls for a return to promotion and relegation, Wood has issued a passionate defence of rugby league and its management by the governing body.
I sat down for an exclusive interview with Wood for a 5 live Sport rugby league special, which will be broadcast from 21:00 BST on Wednesday. He loves his rugby league and we spoke for 45 minutes before I'd even turned the microphone on.
The RFL agreed to the interview despite its initial wariness about the potential for another battering at the hands of the national media. My view was that any governing body is more likely to attract criticism for being silent than for anything it could say. But Wood is clearly hugely frustrated at having to do interviews like this.
MP Andy Burnham has called for the return of promotion and relegation to top-flight rugby league. Photo: Getty
"I've been in this job since October 2007 and it does get frustrating having to fight fires but if it was too hot in the kitchen I'd need to get out," he says. "This is the best sport in the world and more people are starting to understand that. We do have to fight our corner in the media to make sure the sport is properly respected."
First on the agenda: Bradford. The Bulls clearly feel the RFL could have done more; the RFL is adamant it has bent over backwards for the club. How serious is their financial plight and who is to blame? Is their crisis symptomatic of a wider problem in the sport?
Wood labels Bradford's problems a "high-profile blip".
"It would be wrong to roll out the example of Bradford and say it is evidence of a widespread malaise in the sport," he says. "We have some excellent clubs in the Super League and Championship that are well-run. Club finances are first and foremost a matter for the people who run the clubs. I am satisfied that at the top end of our competition we have some very well-run clubs indeed."
Wood admits he would have expected more of the Bulls, saying: "Asking the fans for money to bail the club out is not a good position to be in and those who were managing Bradford at the time need to understand that."
So who is to blame? "The responsibility for any business's finances lies with the board of directors in situ. They are in power and set ticket prices and season ticket prices and player contracts."
Wood insists Bradford's financial situation was beyond the RFL's control and I suggest to him that the Bulls feel he could have done more to help them.
"I've heard this a number of times and I don't really know where we are supposed to go," he counters. "We don't run clubs - they are independent businesses owned by independent shareholders and those shareholders elect boards of directors to manage clubs.
"I don't see the [Scottish Football Association] being hauled over the coals for the financial mess Rangers are in. Or the Premier League when Portsmouth got into some difficulties. The RFL's job is to create the best possible environment for well-run clubs to flourish and establish themselves. It is still down to local management at club level to make the best of the opportunity the sport presents."
Wood calls the game's salary cap a "very definite and deliberate attempt to assist clubs to be able to develop on a sustainable basis" and says the RFL is heading for another year of profit.
I suggest attendances are more of a concern than how much the RFL has in the bank and point to a crowd of just 2,574 for a Challenge Cup quarter-final between Huddersfield and London.
"I agree with you that wasn't the best look," says Wood. "But that shouldn't detract from the overall health of the sport. I'd rather focus on gates being up 8% this year and we're on target to deliver 1.8 million spectators over the season."
Wood's PR is excellent and the stats do back up his faith in the job his team are doing.
So why the constant criticism of the RFL? Is the issue that it doesn't market the sport as well as, dare I say, rugby union?
"I get challenged on two issues more than any," says Wood. "That the game is no good at marketing and promoting itself, and that we need to win more internationally. These are the two hammers that keep getting landed on the sport. We haven't got the same public school network that rugby union has had or the same strength in the game in the Celtic nations, nor a strong South Africa like union has.
"But I'd argue in all other aspects league more than punches its weight."
5 live rugby league, with special guests Jon Wilkin, Jamie Peacock and Eorl Crabtree, will be broadcast from 21:00 BST on Wednesday