Following a vote by the Rugby League Council to change the structure of Super League next season, big changes are planned for the game both on and off the field.
Hull Live sports editor James Smailes catches up with Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell to get his take on the future of the game, while also finding out where Rovers are currently at with their rebuilding plans having secured their place in the top division.
James Smailes: Let’s start with squad building. It’s looking like all change at Hull KR for next year, what can you tell us about the latest developments on recruitment?
Neil Hudgell: The structure has changed and the extended jeopardy is now reduced so that doesn’t cause me as many issues.
The emphasis next year is on reducing quantity and increasing the quality. We had the biggest squad in Super League by some distance and that has to change.
We are still seeing about who is going to come in, but that is easier said than done as there are not a lot of great players on the market.
I can’t make any headline promises about what is going to happen, but we will continue to have squad evolution and we will focus our three-year plan so it encourages more stability in the squad and we can improve year on year.
How difficult is it trying to recruit at this late stage?
It is very difficult and we need to get it right. If you go through the spine of our side at one, six, seven, nine and 13.
We have a number one who is injured for the majority of next year. We have a six, you can call him a six or a seven, in Danny McGuire who has struggled a little bit with injury this year and will be another year older so we are not quite sure at the minute how that is going to pan out.
We have Chris Atkin who is still establishing himself as a Super League player and is a utility having played some nine as well. Todd Carney came in very late and has missed matches.
At nine we’ve had a problem with Shaun who has missed games and had injuries throughout the year and at 13 we are a bit fluid who goes in. So there’s some work to do with our spine and we need to look at how we can improve that, but it’s easier said than done as good quality players don’t come around that often.
We’re not going to panic, though, because with the structure change and the jeopardy reduced we can be a bit more measured.
The structure change also means we don’t need to save that sort of money we did this year for the end of the season as we signed Ben Crooks, Craig Hall and Todd Carney and arguably if it was next year, we wouldn’t have signed any of them late on.
They were signed to give us options at the back end of the year. Some people forget our one to five in the backs were all lost throughout the year. We lost Quinlan, we lost Justin Carney, we lost Heffernan, Minns, Shaw, we lost them all for different reasons.
You have to factor that in. But next year we need to see more of Will Dagger, Elliott Wallis, Will Oakes, people like that. It is an opportunity for them next year to try and play more.
We’ve reported the Magic Weekend fixtures will change and there will be no Hull derby, how do you feel about that?
I’m not sure if not having a derby is good or not. I don’t like Magic Weekend, I never have. I like it a bit more when you win, I like the concept, but I just don’t like the way we do it with the fixtures and when and it all needs refreshing.
Magic is a purists’ pilgrimage but it will never grow. We can see that from the attendances. We need to decide if it is a celebration event or one to promote the strategic element of the game.
To grow the audience I think we need to find a stadium closer to home, that’s within easy reach for most fans then people will come. Magic serves a purpose but it needs a rethink.
Does the game need a big event like Magic Weekend, an event to capture the attention?
We need to find something to make more of the season opener and build on the thrill of rugby league being back. Whether that is a derby, a double header somewhere, I would be in support of that. If that happened we would ditch the pre-season derby.
What the sport is trying to do is come up with a fixture format that is fair and reasonable, but equally what we need is to have some commercial element to it too.
We need to let clubs maximise the earnings from the right fixtures at the right time without damaging the integrity of the competition. There is some work being done around that at the minute.
There’s talk the interchanges will be reduced to eight next season, is that a welcome move?
It is something that makes sense as we need to bring the skill level back up in our game. It is no coincidence that with all these big men coming on the field after short stints we are seeing more injuries in the game too.
I’m an advocate of bringing the substitutes down to eight, it could go down to six for me too.
Are you confident the clubs and game got everything it wanted out of the structure change?
The funny thing with the rugby league trade press, and this is a generalisation and doesn’t apply to everybody, but there is a core of disproportionately large voices who had sympathy with the Championship clubs who didn’t want change.
The need for change was overwhelming and the changes went through on a strong mandate. Compare that to three years ago when the arse about face system we had this year came in and it went through on a 7-6 Super League majority, let’s put that context in first.
All the press in the trades ahead of that vote was about greedy Super League clubs and chairmen. There is no such thing as a greedy Super League chairman. Every one of us puts pots of money into our clubs. The vote was a free vote, it was a secret vote.
There was a lot of mud being thrown saying Super League clubs were bullying others to vote their way, but it was a free and secret vote so consequently it was a fair vote and came in with a big majority because of the need for change.
Ultimately, what we have may not end up being the landscape for long because the long term aim should be in three years when the next broadcast deal comes up that we have a 14 team competition.
Whether that is outland clubs like Toulouse and Toronto, or whether it is Leigh, Bradford or whoever else from the Championship I don’t know, but it has to be the direction we travel in. What sport drags down the top tier for the benefit of the middle tier?
Only rugby league and that’s what the structure we had was doing. Hull had nothing to play for, Huddersfield playing in an empty stadium, St Helens treading water for eight weeks, you can’t operate like that.
The structure is one thing, but there are so many issues to address. Lack of players, boring, junior levels dropping?
For me it is a top down approach and we have to start by repairing the top division. The structure isn’t the be all and end all, but getting it right helps. If we get the trading conditions right for Super League clubs to perform and if you do that we can grow from there.
Not being able to sell memberships and have it confirmed what your fixtures will be for the second half of the season and when, is not how you run a sport or business. People don’t understand what they’re getting for their money.
Alongside that we need to get the product right on the field. The clubs have discussed that, how to improve the product. How do we speed up a two hour TV game? How do we improve the quality of the officiating? That is all part of the plan too.
Where do you stand on the scheduling of the TV games. Should we schedule TV games Friday when everyone is out at matches?
The fixture schedule is a very big part at the minute of the work we are doing to try and make sure we have the attractive fixtures played at the right time.
For example we only had two Sunday fixtures last year and we are a Sunday club, because we had to move fixtures.
Clubs are given an opportunity to give direction on when to play the fixtures but not in the past in an early enough way that we have been able to work together to ensure we get the best result for everyone.
That is ongoing at the minute and there is a dialogue we can make sure the fixtures suit each club’s respective fan base. That’s a massive piece of work in itself.
And how about those lapsed fans, who are falling out of love with the game?
One of the major problems the game has got is the demographic and age profile of the fans has gone up and up.
As a sport and as a club we need to get more digital. Fans like the highlights packages, they like podcasts, they like to access the sport on their terms in a fast-moving world. Lots of people won’t watch a full 80 minute game.
We need to get more in tune with customer behaviour and I don’t think we’ve done enough work on that.
As much as there is a pressing need for change, should it be slow and right or does the game need to get its skates on?
Let’s get it right. The game can be accused of not knowing what it wants and change for changing sake, but the last big change went through on an embarrassing 7-6 mandate on the whim of a CEO who has long since left and it was a change which should not have happened.
This mandate is strong. It is an irony that the Championship clubs are going to 14 sides next year.
I don’t want to just pinpoint individuals but the guy in charge at Bradford is the biggest hypocrite in the game. He talks about self-interest from Super League and then sits and votes on a system that more or less ensured his side went up to the Championship. That made me chuckle.
How do you attract new audiences?
We need to be simple, and the eights was not simple to the casual observer. People need to understand what the sport is about.
There will be some immediate changes, there will be some slow burners, but the time is critical because the game is withering on a vine.
Audience participation is dying and you can see that from the top to the community game and we need to halt that.
Do you think the game has reached it’s most pivotal point for many years?
We have reached a position now where we have given ourselves a platform to build the sport and we have to put our money where our mouth is. It is almost last chance saloon in my eyes. I’m confident.
I’m optimistic and I would have been incredibly pessimistic if that change had not happened. All the signs are there we can improve the health of the sport led by strong Super League clubs all batting in the same direction, with the exception of one who I hope comes along and doesn’t play snide political games that appeal to those who pull the strings of the puppets in other areas of the sport.