I WAS determined to get my new role as the chairman of the Rugby Football League off on the right track.
And I feel I did just that taking in three Super League matches in three days over the competition’s opening weekend.
Mind you, I had preceded that front-foot initiative by having a bit of a ‘senior’ moment when sitting blissfully on a train at King’s Cross Station waiting for it to depart for Leeds. Shoes off and headphones on I was just settling down with that day’s crossword when I heard the train manager on the public address mention ‘York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle’.
All great places, but none of them where I wanted to go that particular morning.
So it was off with the music, on with size 11s, I’d already got three down, four across would have to wait – and a quick dash over to the next platform for the right train – the one to Leeds and the next stage in a lifelong journey which has fortunately embraced top quality sport at every stop.
The head of BBC Sport, the controller of ITV Sport and the chief executive of The Football Association are three personal milestones in what has been a hugely satisfying career dealing at the top of the broadcasting and sports industry.
Great organisations, in which I have been able to make a significant contribution to the output, welfare and prosperity of those iconic institutions, so important to people’s lives.
Being appointed to a new position as the new independent non-executive chairman of one of the country’s great sports, rugby league, allows me the privilege of adding another fascinating chapter to my sporting life. And it is one I am really looking forward to taking on.
Rugby league is a full-on, fiercely competitive, fantastic sport. It is also family and fan friendly. It has a wonderful history and heritage and is a sport that is respected for continually asking questions of itself in how it can improve the product and the experience for the player and supporter alike.
It is also a television-friendly sport. Sky Sports have carried every one of the 18 seasons of Super League and their trailer for the new campaign has the whiff of ‘award-winner’ about it as one of the game’s biggest fans, Tour de France and Olympic Games hero, Sir Bradley Wiggins is filmed tackling the tough French mountains on two-wheels, only to be pursued and passed by a rugby league player on two legs, Sam Tomkins.
Tomkins is one of the real stars of the game and hopefully will play a huge part in this season’s Super League fare before he pulls on the England shirt in the Rugby League World Cup in the autumn.
I started my duties at the RFL last Friday. During the day I met my new colleagues, a great hard-working crew led by experienced CEO, Nigel Wood. He was then off to Salford to see their opening match of the season, quite fittingly, as he had worked night and day to keep the club alive after a troublesome close-season. They now look to have a very positive future ahead of them.
Me, I was off to Headingley to see Leeds Rhinos, Super League champions, begin their new campaign. Five titles in six seasons suggest they are well-organised on and off the field. At the helm is Gary Hetherington, a shrewd operator, who has helped turn the club into a fearsome proposition on the field and a financially-sound one off it. On the night they were clear winners over Hull, courtesy of a second-half romp.
I sat and watched with Hetherington and his wife, Kath, who has forgotten more about rugby league than I will ever get around to knowing. However over 80 minutes of action, a bag of Yorkshire Mix sweets and with the generous use of her time and knowledge, she was able to educate me on the whys and wherefores of the sport.
Rugby league is a sport I know, and I have watched for over half a century, live at the stadiums, or on the television, as a broadcaster, viewer and supporter.
However, I do not profess to be a fount of knowledge or know-how on the game. And if some mischief-maker wants to catch me out on who did what when, then they will find it easy to do. That’s not what I’ve come into the sport to prove. It is to try and help it continue to progress, give it a stronger voice and to add the value of my experience garnered at the top of two competitive industries, to the existing talent and hard work that is spread across the governing body and the game as a whole.
My next stop last weekend was Saturday tea-time, and St Helens versus Huddersfield. Chairman, Eamonn McManus, enthusiastically showed me a match report from the club’s first-ever game. It was a pointless match. The Saints crossed the line four times but missed the resulting kicks. He explained that in those days crossing the line then gave teams an opportunity to ‘try’ to score with a conversion. The word ‘try’ had subsequently become synonymous with the sport.
I was able to counter by telling him the word ‘soccer’ had come from breaking down the word ‘association’ as in association football. Good pre-match stuff.
The match itself proved more trying than try-scoring for Eamonn and St Helens who got thumped by a fitter and stronger Huddersfield team.
Still, their late try and a rallying cry of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ sent the Saints fans home from their impressive Langtree Park ground with some late optimism.
Sunday, and it was back to London, for Widnes’ opening game of the season against the London Broncos. The Vikings won in some style and the big support that followed them to the capital were in good voice throughout. I also had time to share ‘Istanbul’ stories with their chairman and big Liverpool fan, Steve O’Connor.
Liverpool legend, Kenny Dalglish, was one of dozens of people who made contact to wish me well in my new role – and all of them encouragingly spoke well of the sport itself.
It had been an exhausting but worthwhile three days – and I intend to do plenty more such trips in the months ahead.
I also intend to do more listening than talking but make my talking count when I take rugby league’s message into rooms that sometimes it has found difficult to gain entry.
The game has its issues and challenges but so has every sport by degree. My job is to try and help rugby league enjoy a strong future and maximise the profile of a season that climaxes with the Rugby League World Cup.
David Bernstein, who sent me a warm message of support, has proved at the Football Association that the role of an independent non-executive chairman can be a powerful office for stability or change, as and when needed, and to represent a sport at every level positively in all key aspects and areas.
And I intend to lead the great sport of rugby league from the front – and with a broad smile.