21 May 2020

Robert Elstone: My message to fans

As the devastating effects of COVID-19 continue to extend beyond sport, it is impossible not to think of the thousands of lives lost and shattered by this disease. This has been a desperately challenging and uncertain time - for families, friends, communities and for the sport we love. It is felt deeply by us all.

In these unprecedented times, we are all very aware of the many unanswered questions about the future, especially regarding the resumption of the season. But, as you will know from your own lives, there is no off-the-shelf manual for the complex challenges we face at the moment. We will try and lift some of that uncertainty. What we must also do is thank you for your patience and the continued support of your Club.

The Covid challenges will be felt for some time - but judging by the way the Game has rallied and Super League clubs have responded so far, I’m confident we can find a way through the uncertainty and be strong and ready to go when we are able. I have been proud of the way our Clubs have stuck together at such a time of crisis. Ours is a resilient sport, as its 125-year history attests, and that has been the foundation of our response to this pandemic.

So many good things about the Game have also come to the fore. As expected, because it’s what we do, the community support offered by our Clubs shines brightly in troubled times. Whilst it is not surprising, it remains heart-warming to see how Clubs have reached into and helped out in their communities.

Our players have been leading the way on social media, talking candidly about the challenges they and their families are facing in a way that is accessible and appreciated by fans.

It has also struck me how lucky we are in many ways. Our owners, players and everyone working in our sport are custodial in outlook and care deeply about Rugby League and their responsibilities to the communities they represent. In arguably the most testing time in its history, Rugby League has come together and continues to show what it’s made of. This is a time to show our character.

Like many sports, we have had to take some very difficult decisions along the way. The majority of Super League and Club staff are currently on furlough. We have made painful cuts to our budgets, which have affected people who have worked tirelessly for us for a long time. I would like to thank them for the sacrifices they have made.

Keeping fans informed and engaged is a priority for every sport and all Clubs. However, right now, providing answers and being definitive is difficult.

Work behind the scenes on broadcasting deals and investment, well-founded on the progress made in 2019, carries on at a pace and remains a priority alongside planning and preparation for the resumption of Super League.

Clearly, on all Covid and restart matters, the Game takes its lead from Government and we need to be organised and adaptable to ever-changing circumstances if we are to get back playing as promptly and efficiently as we can. That considerable task is being led by the Super League team, supported by a group of four nominated Super League clubs and the RFL.

In the best of circumstances, factors such as ground availability, tv selections and international travel make fixture scheduling a complicated matter. It’s even harder with a condensed calendar, restrictions on domestic and international travel and no clear indication of when the season can resume, or on the return of mass gatherings.  

Working through all that, we are now at a stage where we have three advanced models, based around a season restart date of mid-August, differentiated largely on when we expect the season to end. These plans will be refined over the short term as we learn lessons from the relaxation of social distancing, the return to work, the restart of other sports and the general trend of virus spread and control.   

Whilst it is as certain as it can be that our restart will take place behind closed doors, what is most important to you and us is when fans will be allowed back into our stadiums. Speculation on that date, and there is an absence of any well-informed ‘best-estimates’, has been factored into our fixture planning with a greater number of games scheduled towards the end of the projected season. In addition, work has already begun on crowd management in a Covid environment to ensure we’re as ready as we can be when the opportunity first arises.

As has been evident from the welcome return of the Bundesliga, sport is almost unrecognisable without its fans. But it is better than no sport and it will, if it goes well, set a precedent for us and other sports to follow. We are also exploring ways in which we will make every game, beyond Sky’s selected fixtures, available to fans.

Right now, our biggest challenge is getting our players back safely to training and, ultimately, back on the pitch. That presents its own challenges around Covid testing.

Working with the RFL, we are reviewing the capabilities and costs of a number of testing providers. It’s a vitally important area and one we simply have to get right. It’s also why precedents set by other sports will be so important. 

This is a challenging time for us all - our health and well-being, our jobs and livelihoods. But we also recognise the important role we can play in restoring a sense of normality to our disrupted daily lives and, through the wonderful game of Rugby League, putting smiles back on faces.

We share with our fans their feelings of frustration and Super League will continue to plan until we get definitive answers. Please be sure that every effort is being made, in line with Government advice, to get the season back up and running as soon as it is safe to do so.