LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington wants to see peace break out in rugby league during 2014.
Hetherington’s hopes for the year include an end to rows over the future shape of Super League and success for some of his club’s main rivals.
The Leeds chief has predicted a tough battle for the Super League title this year – and expects Castleford Tigers and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats to both have a strong season.
The old year ended with the future shape of the elite competition hanging in the balance, after several clubs blocked proposals for a new structure which would see Super League reduced to 12 teams and then split into two groups mid-way through the season, from 2015.
Hetherington is supporting the RFL’s proposals and highlighted an end to the dispute as his new year main wish.
“I hope Super League clubs can agree on the 2015 league structure at their meeting later this month,” he said. “Rhinos are strongly in favour of a 12-team Super League, with the top-eight entering play-offs after round 23 and the bottom-four joining the top-four from the Championship for promotion play-offs.”
Hetherington is also hopeful Rhinos’ cash-strapped neighbours and rivals Bradford Bulls get back on their feet – and the recent World Cup provides a boost for the sport as a whole.
“I hope Bradford can sort out their ownership issue and focus on playing performances,” he said. “I’d also hope that many of those who attended a rugby league game for the first time during the World Cup become a regular attender to matches and for Super League to soon announce a key title sponsor and other commercial partners who supported the World Cup.”
Of his remaining hopes for the new year, Hetherington added: “The first is for Wigan to achieve the ultimate challenge and bring the World Club Challenge Trophy back from Australia when they take on the Sonny Bill Williams-inspired Sydney Roosters in February.
“I also hope (owner) Dr Marwan Koukash lives up to his rhetoric and transforms Salford Red Devils into a genuine force both on and off the field. And thirdly, that Leeds Rhinos to start the season well and go on to win at Wembley and Old Trafford!”
Hetherington reckons this year’s Super League will be the “most competitive to date”. He predicted: “On paper each of last year’s teams who finished in the top-eight appear to have strengthened, apart from Wigan who have lost some key players.
“St Helens will, I believe, be the biggest improvers and Huddersfield Giants will continue to progress and be a real threat for the major trophies, but it is from last season’s bottom-six where I see most improvement.
“Salford have assembled a very experienced and talented squad who are under pressure to challenge the top teams from start to finish. Bradford Bulls have also put together a much better looking squad and if they keep it together and resolve their ownership issue should be back as a challenger. Castleford, likewise, will be much more of a threat. Daryl Powell will professionalise their operation and the off-season recruitment has resulted in a squad with much more depth.
“The loss of Rangi Chase will challenge the team to be better and I think they will be.
“Wakefield Trinity will be rejuvenated with a better looking squad and Widnes are making steady and consistent progress.
“The London Broncos at this stage are the only side to look weaker, but they are capable of making a flurry of interesting signings before the start. So with the bottom two to be relegated it makes for the most intense and compelling season so far and every team will be desperate to make a good start to the season.”
As for Rhinos, Hetherington added: “I believe we are going into the new season with our best and most exciting squad to date. New signings Paul Aiton and Tom Briscoe will add experience and quality to the squad and players like Brad Singleton, Liam Sutcliffe and Stevie Ward have progressed from promising youngsters to quality Super League players who can go onto make a real impact. And possibly the most significant factor is the hunger and desire throughout the squad to be successful. It’s a novelty for our team to start a season as challenger rather than champions and I know how much our experienced players, in particular, want to win.
“There’s a terrific spirit, determination and quiet confidence within the Rhinos camp, all harnessed perfectly by captain Kevin Sinfield and head coach Brian McDermott and his staff.
“I think all Rhinos fans can feel confident about our chances this season, but in the knowledge that competition has never been so keen.”