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Why would Justin Holbrook leave the best club in Super League for the worst in the NRL?

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Expert
30th July, 2019
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Two years ago, Blake Solly gave up being the chief executive of Super League – with a high profile within that competition’s small media ecosystem – to be the somewhat anonymous CEO at South Sydney.

Yesterday, Justin Holbrook forwent being coach of the best team in the European competition – ten points clear at the top of the table – to take control of the Gold Coast Titans.

The Titans are (I am contractually obliged to write ‘stone motherless’) last.

So how ridiculous does Super League’s media release look now, chastising Wayne Bennett for vaguely suggesting players have to go to the NRL to prove themselves?


The Rugby Football League, the governing body of the game in England (but now somewhat divorced from Super League), last week attributed a £327,000 loss to one – one – poor gate. It seems they rely solely on the Challenge Cup final each year to break even and wanted to charge Catalans to defend their title in 2020, lest a poor-drawing team make the final and wreck the gate again.

Yet roughly half of the Challenge Cup final gate go to tax, the competing teams and the venue. So how much the RFL actually expect to get after all that was taken out? Enough to completely turn around its business?

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Holbrook and Solly are, of course, Australians. Australians often want to go home. 
But the sport’s most powerful club in the northern hemisphere, Wigan, are losing their halfback, George Williams, to Canberra next year. There was barely a whimper in response; once a player is off contract, there is nothing the Warriors can do to keep him if pursued by a competition where every team has with more than twice their salary cap.

Kallum Watkins, who started the season as the captain of the wealthy Leeds club, made his debut for the same struggling NRL franchise last week that Holbrook will next year coach.

Kallum Watkins of the Titans

Kallum Watkins of the Titans. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Missives aimed at Bennett, like those from Super League chief executive Robert Elstone, merely deflect attention away from the inability of a club like St Helens to stop the player at the centre of the controversy, forward Luke Thompson, from going to the NRL.

Pretty much only homebodies happy to earn a living locally and the utilise the inlaws’ babysitting services currently choose a European club over a serious NRL offer. Even being ‘past your prime’ is no longer a deterrent.

Now, it’s important to stress that some very good players are coming back to the competition in England next year – such as George Burgess and Gareth Widdop. Brock Lamb is playing out the season for London and he is at a stage of his career where he could kick on the way Thomas Leuluai and Feleti Mateo did after stints in the capital.

There’ve been some handy signings in the last 12 months. Super League is not yet at the NSW or Queensland Cup level of feeder competition to the NRL. It’s a bit better than that.

But the days of Gene Miles and Peter Sterling ‘bringing the crowds back’ have gone. The game’s problems in Britain run deeper.

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Blake Austin, Jackson Hastings, David Fififa and Lachlan Coote are the top four players in the competition according to the Man of Steel voting. All are Australian and all would, probably, be on a plane home as soon as they could extricate themselves if a top-flight Aussie offer came through.

Coote has even said he did not want to leave the Cowboys and his hand was forced.

Lachlan Coote NRL Rugby League North Queensland Cowboys Finals 2017

Lachlan Coote during his time with the Cowboys (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

It was recently reported that Super League went to a merchant bank looking to sell a stake in return for significant investment. It would surprise if a merchant bank would be interested in the competition, with clubs dotted along the M62 in the north of England, plus one outpost in the south of France and another in London which could be relegated at any time.

The problem is literally the clubs, who don’t want to share their dwindling income, so the disparity with the NRL gets bigger. The clubs’ entire survival plan revolves around a revenue source, which is getting smaller globally, traditional TV rights.

Everything they do – the moody motion pictures and #newbeginnings hashtags – is aimed at the besuited men who sit across from them at TV negotiations.

Strangely, they have a team from North America that’s spent millions trying to join them while taking nothing – and they are asking that team for more. More expensive flights, nicer hotels, a bigger cut of any North American TV money that might eventuate.

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The Toronto Wolfpack had a participation agreement with the RFL which gave them a pathway to Super League. Now the RFL and Super League have split, the latter is placing extra conditions on them.

I’ve postulated they could say ‘no’ to promotion. They could also just say ’no’ to the demands and insist on being promoted, using legal remedies of necessary.

But what would be much easier would be to give Super League the X it demands and then sue the RFL for X. The RFL promised a path to Super League so any unforeseen expenses incurred are conceivably as a result of it not delivering what it promised.

That would handily take care of the justification for next year’s RFL shortfall, too.

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