Coronavirus: Suspension of rugby league is chance to reset - Smith

By Dave WoodsBBC rugby league correspondent
Tony Smith
Tony Smith became Hull KR head coach in June 2019

The coronavirus shutdown could be a chance for rugby league to reset and create a new blueprint for the future of the sport, according to one of the game's most experienced figures.

Survival of clubs is the immediate concern, says Hull KR head coach Tony Smith, but the whole game has a chance now to change direction and plot a more sustainable future - with a focus on talent production.

"This is an opportunity for us," said Smith, the former GB boss, who helped resurrect the fortunes of Huddersfield, Leeds and Warrington in a coaching career that began nearly 20 years ago.

"The immediate focus is getting through this now. But once we get some answers to that, then we really need to take stock of what the game should look like, could look like, how strong it needs to be and in what areas.

"I'm not sure there's been a lot of focus on that for a number of years. This is a chance to do that."

Many clubs were walking a financial tightrope even before the current crisis. And many coaches had expressed alarm at the falling numbers in player talent pools in the junior ranks.

Now Smith believes both concerns could be addressed.

"Good on anyone who can earn whatever they can, it's not the players' fault, I'm not blaming players, but it's just got so cutthroat at the top in order to try to field the best team." he added.

"We spend so much money on player wages, we let our grassroots and junior systems be depleted.

"In this country we really need to take stock of how we are going to produce top-class players and more of them. And I think in order to do that, we need a bigger player pool at the bottom. So you need to finance more into the junior sections.

"If your playing pools aren't as big as some other player pools in the world, how do you make your player pools good? That's through fantastic coaching. So coach education needs to be focused."

'We need to take stock'

Smith also believes that the structure of the competition needs to be addressed.

"Most of the country has a system of promotion and relegation. And when you have that, it takes the focus to the top and survival, rather than growth below." he said.

"We've got to really work out what systems we want and what works best for the game.

"As soon as we get through some of this and we start to regroup and understand whatever levels we're playing at, and what adjustments we've had to make with the competition and wages and all those things, we really need to take stock of what the future needs to look like and how we are going to get there."

Tony Smith
Tony Smith became Hull KR head coach in June 2019

The game at the top level has been recently split, with the Super League clubs taking control of their own marketing and TV negotiations and a cash strapped Rugby Football League left to look after the rest of the sport.

But the coronavirus pandemic has seen clubs at all levels working much more closely with the RFL. Smith is heartened by that and hopes the spirit of unity can be a long-lasting outcome.

"There's been not a conflict of interest, but a conflict of views. At some stage we've got to have a united view of how we look after the whole game." he added.

"The structure of our administration needs to be looked at, so that we are united. I think this has brought us together a bit in recent weeks, but I don't know it's been healthy before that.

"You have people who are investing their money into the competition and feel they need to have some control over it, and rightly so.

"So it's a difficult situation to get an administration that can please all. But that's what we're all after.

"We're after someone who can unite us and make some of the tough decisions and say 'this is the right direction. If I can't do it then I'm done and I'm gone'.

"Whereas I think some people haven't been accountable in positions (in the past), so the structure needs to be addressed so that there is some accountability but there is direction and there is some power at the top as well."

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