SIMMERING distrust between Leeds Rhinos’ management and some of their Betfred Super League rivals is threatening to boil over.
Rhinos’ Gary Hetherington issued a statement slamming a “small group of men who think they own the game” following new Super League chief executive Robert Elstone’s introductory press conference yesterday.
Elstone, flanked by St Helens chairman Eamonn McManus, Wigan Warriors’ Ian Lenagan and Simon Moran, the Warrington Wolves owner, announced the end of rugby league’s controversial Super-8s format and the return to a one-up, one-down format from next year.
Outlining his vision for the future, Elstone – a Castleford Tigers fan who is originally from Barnsley – said his job involved “replacing a competition format that isn’t working, that’s creating too much uncertainty for clubs and fans”.
Leeds have been accused of being the only club opposed to the new direction for the competition favoured by McManus, Lenagan and others. But Hetherington, whose beef is understood to be with rival chairmen rather than Elstone personally, believes the 12 top-flight clubs are split on the issue.
The Leeds chief executive served on the body running Super League in the 1990s and was a member of an interim Rugby Football League board before independent directors were appointed for the first time.
Hetherington believes the RFL should be responsible for running the sport as a whole and in his statement he said: “Today’s announcement regarding plans for next season appear to be an absurd grab for power for the game by a small group of men who think they own the game.
“Leeds Rhinos are not party to this and are totally against the creation of a separate Super League executive.
“Super League clubs voted 7 to 5 at our last meeting on some key issues related to promotion and relegation.
“The game is in need of strong leadership from [RFL chairman] Brian Barwick and his Board of Directors at the Rugby Football League, the game’s governing body, and this announcement should bring a response from everyone connected with the game.”
Elstone, 54, left his role as chief executive of Everton Football Club to join Super League.
Lenagan insists his appointment does not amount to a breakaway from the RFL.
“The RFL is the governing body for rugby league,” said the Wigan chairman.
“What we have done is taken responsibility for commercial activity to give the top tier the focus it should have. We believe it is very important that the sole focus is on Super League.”
Hetherington is likely to receive support from clubs outside the top division.
Batley Bulldogs released a statement which said: “Do not be misled by any conclusion that the format for 2019 has been decided.
“We believe this was disrespectful to the present consultation process involving the RFL and Championship/League 1 representatives where we are nowhere near a conclusion.
“Any Super League plan at the last meeting had not even made it to the back of a cigarette packet, let alone a formulated document proposal. We need The RFL response to confirm this position working towards a whole game solution or war looms.”