Coronavirus is rugby league's toughest test says Leeds Rhinos chief

The coronavirus pandemic has handed rugby league its greatest challenge, Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington believes.

Wednesday, 18th March 2020, 6:00 am
Gary Hetherington. Picture by James Hardisty.

The entire sport, from Betfred Super League to community level, has been shut down until at least Friday, April 3 as part of efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Hetherington described the situation as “unprecedented times for everybody and a unique set of challenges for us all, for the game and for every club”.

The decision to suspend the sport was made at a Super League meeting on Monday. Hetherington is in Australia, but dialed in to represent Leeds, whose game at Catalans Dragons last weekend was the first to be called off because of the health emergency.

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There will be no rugby league at Emerald Heaidngley until at least April 3.

“I think rugby league has had a whole history of adversity and overcoming challenges, but this is one it has never had to face before,” the Leeds chief said.

“The big problem is the uncertainty of not knowing how long it is going to prevail. All sport around the world faces the same issue; I am in Sydney and it is just as chaotic over here as I would imagine it is in England.

“Every sports club, business and industry is facing the same challenges and it’s not just sport, it’s the same for all businesses.”

Hetherington feels the key now is for the entire code to pull together. He insisted: “Rugby league is very resilient and one thing we have got in our favour is that at times like this the stakeholders of the game - the fans, players, coaches, administrators, sponsors etc - will all come together and lend their support and also their patience.

AJ Boardman scores for Hunslet against Bradford Bulls. Lower division teams will also be hit by rugby league's shutdown. Picture by Paul Johnson.

“It is going to need that type of resolve to battle through. I am encouraged to see how the RFL [Rugby Football League] and Super League executives are working together, as a united game effectively, to come up with strategies to deal with all the issues we’ve got and to look at contingencies we might have to make moving forward. dependent on how long this scenario lasts.”

A joint statement from the RFL and Super League confirmed the “season’s structure and fixture rescheduling” will be considered during the initial suspension. Rhinos had already endured two postponements before the shutdown and Catalans Dragons have three gamers in hand on some clubs. Midweek matches seem inevitable, but other options could include extending the season into November - though that would clash with the scheduled home Test series against Australia - or possibly scrapping the six extra ‘loop’ fixtures, when teams face each other for a third time.

Hetherington said: “We’ve effectively suspended the next two weeks of Super League games and if ultimately we can get back playing games after that, then those two rounds are quite easily manageable to be fitted into the fixtures and we could finish with a Grand Final on the due date [in October] and so on.

“But of course if it goes beyond that everything else has to be considered - and I think literally everything else. That is the operative word, considered. No decisions, at all, have been made on anything - it is all up for consideration and it is being monitored on an almost daily basis.”

Chairmen across the sport have voiced fears some clubs may not survive a long mid-season period without income. Asked if he shares that view, Hetherington said; “All the clubs are individual businesses.

“We are a very different business to many others in Super League, in terms of the range of our business and diversity of it, but everybody has their own set of unique challenges.

“Some businesses might be fairly well financially resourced and others might not be. It is impossible to say and it is just the same a bit further down the chain in the Championship. They have got the same issues and same challenges. The numbers may be different, but if you don’t have any money that’s the stark reality of it.”