Leeds Rhinos chief Gary Hetherington confident stay-away fans will return to Super League matches

Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington does not believe supporters are turning their back on rugby league.

Rhinos’ Sunday evening visit of Warrington Wolves at the start of this month attracted a crowd of 9,196 - the first four-figure gate for a regular season league game at Emerald Headingley since 2003.

Fewer than 11,000 watched Leeds’ most recent home game, a derby against Castleford Tigers and the best attendance in Betfred Super League round 19 last weekend was 7,129 at Catalans Dragons for the visit of Hull.

Three of the six games - including Leeds’ visit to Leigh Centurions - attracted fewer than 3,500 spectators.

Rhinos fans have created a terrific atmosphere, chief executive Gary Hetheirngton says. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com.

Leeds’ final game before the pandemic struck last year - at home to Toronto Wolfpack - was watched by 12,143.

Hetherington, though, believes recent disappointing attendances are a “reflection of current circumstances and people’s own situations as well”.

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Thursday’s visit of Huddersfield Giants will be Leeds’ seventh at home in front of a crowd this year and the fourth with no restriction on capacity. “I think there’s still a lot of people who are being extremely cautious and are not returning to live events at this moment in time,” Hetherington said.

Luke Gale. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

“We have a lot of evidence of that, I have had a lot of people telling me they are probably going to leave it until next season before they come back.”

Hetherington reckons that is “perfectly understandable” and feels confusion caused by the continuing pandemic has also had a bearing.

He added: “This has been yet another very disrupted season for Super League.

“We had a shocking disruption in 2020 and hoped we’d be clear of that this year, but that’s not been the case.

“We’ve not been able to complete every fixture, the league table is based on win percentage and some clubs have been severely affected by Covid, much more than others.

“I think the game is managing a very difficult situation as best it can.”

Hetherington expects crowds to begin to return as the pandemic eases.

He insisted: “In the games we’ve had at Headingley, the atmosphere has been outstanding.

“Those who’ve been to the games have done their bit, but it’s very noticeable we don’t have anything like the [pre-pandemic] number of away fans travelling.

“That was evidenced by the Castleford contingent a few weeks ago, which was only a few hundred and would normally be 1-2,000.

“People aren’t travelling in the way they did, it’s all understandable and I think we won’t get back to the new normal until the start of 2022.

“But we are definitely heading in the right direction. Soccer’s Premier League was back at the weekend and the capacity crowds they entertained gives a confidence that we are getting back to what we had before and coming to live events is a great way of being entertained.”

Since crowds were allowed back into stadiums, Rhinos’ focus has been on their existing members, Hetherington said.

He noted: “We’ve not done any community activity or engagement.

“We’d normally have that going on before the game and at half-time and that all brings people to the game.

“We’ve none of that going on and we are only delivering a limited part of our matchday operation, which in itself generates attendance.

“That’s a clear reason why certain sectors are not at games, because they’ve not been engaged in game, deliberately.

“It is a gradual easing back and we won’t be back to the full match day presentation until next season.

“It’s going to be 2022 before we get back to what was normal.”

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