Ian Blease sporting director role explained as Leeds Rhinos make 'statement of intent' on return to the top

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Chief executive Gary Hetherington says Ian Blease’s appointment as sporting director is a statement of intent by Leeds Rhinos.

Blease was unveiled yesterday (Monday) after eight years as chief executive at Salford Red Devils. He played with Salford and Swinton and worked as a player’s agent before moving into administration.

The 59-year-old will have overall responsibility for Rhinos’ performance department - including the first team, academy, reserves and women’s sides - and be in charge of recruitment and retention of players and staff.

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He arrives at Leeds with a stellar reputation having been one of the reasons for Salford punching above their weight in Betfred Super League over recent years. They have finished above Leeds on the table in three of the last six seasons and are currently one place higher, despite regularly having to part with star players including Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers who moved to Rhinos last autumn.

Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left, introduces new sporting director Ian Blease during a press conferfence at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left, introduces new sporting director Ian Blease during a press conferfence at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.
Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left, introduces new sporting director Ian Blease during a press conferfence at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.

During Blease’s time as chief executive they were third on the ladder in 2019 and reached the Grand Final before losing by a point to Rhinos in the following year’s Challenge Cup decider at Wembley. Half-back Jackson Hastings was voted Man of Steel in 2019 and Croft won the same award three years later.

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Blease will have a bigger budget and greater resources at AMT Headingley and Rhinos are hoping some of his Salford achievements will follow him across the Pennines. He is the sixth executive member of Rhinos’ board and Hetherington hailed the appointment as a “very significant announcement”.

He insisted: “It is a reflection of the Leeds Rhinos board of directors’ intent and investment in rugby league at all levels as we strive to regain our status as a top Super League club and build on our grading points as well. Despite the pretty tough economic climate we - and indeed all Super League clubs - are facing, this appointment will certainly add support and expertise to all our rugby league teams and especially our men’s first team; to the players themselves, our head coach and the backroom staff.

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Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left and sporting director Ian Blease at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left and sporting director Ian Blease at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.
Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left and sporting director Ian Blease at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.

Kevin Sinfield was director of rugby for more than three years and when he left we didn’t replace him. This new appointment will take on all those responsibilities and some more. The role will focus on the growth of our operation and improving standards at every level, including player and staff retention and recruitment.”

Plans to appoint a sporting director were revealed a fortnight ago. The Yorkshire Evening Post understands Blease was identified quickly as the leading candidate and an announcement was planned last week, but put on hold following Rob Burrow’s death.

“The role required someone who has got expertise in all sections of our industry,” Hetherington added. “Someone with a successful track record, someone with outstanding personal skills, someone who can make decisions and someone who has some financial acumen as well to be able to manage a rugby league budget.

“We had quite a number of high-quality applicants and are delighted the chosen one is Ian Blease. I’d like to thank the Salford club - and particularly their chairman Paul King - who have been very approachable and understanding and have enabled this appointment to go ahead.

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Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left and sporting director Ian Blease at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left and sporting director Ian Blease at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.
Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, left and sporting director Ian Blease at AMT Headingley. Picture by James Hardisty.

“I enjoyed for many years watching the playing skills of Ian Blease and more recently have admired what he has been able to do in management at Salford. I’m delighted to welcome him to the club.”

Hetherington was previously head of Rhinos’ performance department, but will now focus on non-playing matters. Asked how much autonomy Blease will have, the chief executive insisted: “All our executive directors are outstanding experts in their own field.

“They actually manage the business and my role as chief executive is primarily to provide support. Ian will be exactly the same as everybody else. They come forward with recommendations in the best interests of the club and I can’t think of one example [of that not being implemented].

“As a club we are totally committed to investing in rugby league at all levels and we are doing that. This is a further investment and trying to improve the first team as well. I am pretty confident we are on the right track and we need really capable people to take us on that journey. We have strengthened that with the appointment of Ian.”

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Blease will officially begin work at Leeds next Monday. His first game will be the visit of Leigh Centurions four days later when Rhinos will celebrate Burrow’s life on global motor neurone disease day.

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