It has been four painstaking months which Robert Elstone will be keen to forget. In mid-March, the Super League chief executive stood on the steps of Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium and conceded he had no idea whether rugby league would return at all this year due to the threat of Covid-19.
That Super League restarts on Sunday with a double-header in Leeds is cause for celebration for the game’s lovers. But typically, there have been challenges on the road to resumption. Many top-flight clubs faced a bleak future when the competition was postponed in March and Toronto Wolfpack formally withdrew from the season restart last week.
That has been a blow for not only the transatlantic Wolfpack, who featured Sonny Bill Williams in their ranks, but for Elstone and Super League, too. Yet in the face of the local lockdowns introduced across the north on Thursday, Super League returns as planned.
So what dictates a successful 2020 in Elstone’s eyes for a season which, several months ago, never looked likely to be completed as clubs warned of grave financial ramifications from the pandemic? “It would be very easy coming out of four months of hard work to simply say finishing it,” he admits, “but we have to aspire for more and hope for more.
“I’m hopeful that when we get crowds back, we can maximise our potential and we owe our fans something in the sense of their loyalty. If we could get 65,000 fans into Old Trafford on 28 November for the Grand Final, I would shake your hand right now.”
News of fan-attended pilot events being postponed may yet scupper those ambitions, but Elstone is determined to build on what the competition achieved in 2019 – with burgeoning TV figures ahead of a crucial renewal date with Sky next year – despite the ongoing uncertainty engulfing Super League’s return.
The competition is entering a crucial period since its flagship broadcast deal is up for renewal, starting with the month of August. The restart date was earmarked by Sky Sports due to the later-than-planned football off-season, leaving a window for another sport to step up and deliver.
Elstone is acutely aware of the opportunity that presents to a sport which has craved attention for decades. “Sky felt this weekend was best for their schedule and that’s exactly why we’ve done it this way,” he says.
Throughout this month, games will be played as double and triple-header events in Leeds and St Helens on weekends, giving Super League more exposure than it perhaps could have expected. But these are far from ordinary times.
“The postponement of the season and the lockdown has presented challenges all across the board,” Elstone admits. “Nobody knew how long this virus would run and clearly, we’re not out of the woods. As the weeks have gone on though, we’ve been able to tick the boxes required of us.”
The biggest challenge has undoubtedly been integrating the competition’s two overseas teams. Toronto have now gone for 2020 at least – with discussions set to continue in the coming weeks about a return – but Catalans have committed to the remainder of the season, bringing with them a litany of logistical challenges flying teams in and out of the south of France as the pandemic continues to unfold.
“Catalans have been given an exemption from French government in regards to being clear of quarantine issues should an outbreak arise,” Elstone says. “How robust that would remain if the circumstances became more extreme, I don’t know.”
With 22 rounds, a Challenge Cup and a play-off series all to squeeze in before a Grand Final on the last weekend in November, Super League can clearly ill-afford any more delays or setbacks.
When St Helens face Catalans, before Leeds take on Huddersfield at Headingley, it certainly will be rugby league, but not quite as we know it. For those who feared Super League wouldn’t return at all in 2020, not least Elstone, it will be a relief come 4:30pm on Sunday afternoon when the talking finally stops and the action begins.
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