Lindsay defends the Super League revolution

Dave Hadfield talks to the man who is leading rugby league into the unknown as a summer sport in a new competition
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The Independent Online
On Sunday afternoon, Maurice Lindsay watched the match that he has been largely responsible for turning into rugby league's last as a winter sport.

At Salford to present their First Division championship trophy and to bring down the curtain on 100 years of mud, blood and being misunderstood, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League had a few nostalgic regrets - but only a few.

The weekend marked the end of the last winter season in this country. In March, professional rugby league will re-emerge from its chrysalis as a colourful new creature, unrecognisable from its grubby, if also glorious past.

"Nostalgia's lovely, but if you wallow in it, it can lead you to make mistakes," he says. Whatever errors Lindsay may have made on behalf of British rugby league, nostalgia and inertia have not been responsible.

Already the undisputed dominant force in the British game, he has recently become the chairman of the international board set up by Super League - in effect its worldwide supremo - he also took charge of the World Cup last autumn and chairs the Central Council for Physical Recreation.

The prediction of one columnist is that this year will see him succeed both President Clinton and the Pope. But if Lindsay ever feels over-stretched by his responsibilities, he is not admitting it.

"I'm looking for more," he says from his office at the League's new headquarters on the outskirts of Leeds. "But I can only do it because we've invested in more people. There are some terrific young people here. They don't come through the door at nine and go out at five. It becomes their life, part of their living culture."

The demands Lindsay makes upon his staff are indeed legendary and life is unlikely to become any less hectic in the months ahead.

Apart from switching to summer, British rugby league has accepted pounds 87m from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to become part of his worldwide sports and television empire. It is a deal that has led the game into uncharted territory, where the fear is that it is no longer in control of its own destiny.

Lindsay is vehemently defensive on this point. The way he tells it, pounds 87m has bought Murdoch no control whatsoever. The game is free to carry on as it pleases, with the single exception of remaining in cahoots with Super League in Australia and shunning the other warring faction at the Australian Rugby League.

It was not, he insists, a condition of the deal that Britain should switch to the summer. "We would have moved to summer rugby if we hadn't had a penny," he says, a late convert to the summer bandwagon himself.

"It was on the agenda for the next meeting of the Rugby League Council. There would have been a debate, but it would have gone through, I'm sure of that. Only a few diehards would have voted against it."

It is a moot question and one to which we will never know the answer. Summer rugby was part of the package - although, he emphasises, at the RFL's instigation rather than Super League's - and went through on the nod.

For Lindsay, there is only a trace of regret. "I remember all the great occasions on Boxing Days, but I also remember getting up at four in the morning to try to get pitches fit for play. I also remember players like Denis Betts coming up to me in the mud and rain and saying: 'Maurice, what are we doing playing in this?' If rugby in winter was such a good idea, where were the crowds to watch it?"

In summer, he believes, rugby league will reach out and grab the attention of a wider audience which has proved resistant. "I honestly believe that, given a fair go, we will be the biggest thing in summer in this country."

But what, apart from its parochial horizons and the mud on its boots, does rugby league stand to lose in the process?

Well, its name, for a start. It will not have escaped eagle-eyed viewers of Sky Television's trailers for the summer re-start that there is no mention of rugby league; it is all Super League.

It is no accident, but Lindsay sees nothing to worry about. There has long been a belief that rugby league was held back by sharing half a name with rugby union.

"They can distinguish between the two in Wigan, but they certainly can't in America or Hong Kong," he says. Britain and Australia had already discussed a name change before Super League reared its head.

The game has been through such a process once before, in 1924, when it ditched its original identity as the Northern Union. It says much about the code, however, that such changes can be slow to catch on.

"When I was first at Wigan in 1979," Lindsay recalls, "the players' registration forms we were using still had 'Northern Rugby Union' on them." Commendable economy with the stationery, but the name rugby league might not prove as durable.

Is it, though, a very wise idea to have the sport identified by a trade mark, a brand name, which, after all, is what Super League is?

It is a question which creates some agitation. "Don't drive me down that road. People keep trying to prove that there is some measure of control that isn't there. It's wearing a bit boringly thin, to be honest."

There are other sore points. One, inevitably, is the Independent's disclosure last month of a contractual clause that allows Murdoch and his men some say over who plays for whom. Suffice it to say that the story is our first topic of conversation and we part, four hours later, still both convinced that the other has got it wrong.

"Our lawyers have looked at it and News Corporation's lawyers have looked at it and they have said that there is no way it will be used in that manner," he says, insisting that the clause exists only in order to prevent defections to the ARL.

''There are some writers who have the preconception that Rupert Murdoch is the devil incarnate and that everything he's associated with is the devil's work. I find that completely and utterly contemptible."

It is this failure to understand the depth of suspicion of Murdoch within the game - even among those who would otherwise welcome much that he promises - that is Lindsay's Achilles' heel.

A good example of that is his attitude to the future of the Challenge Cup. The game's oldest competition is in limbo at present, with its role in a Super League season uncertain.

Lindsay says that he has not been able to get far in negotiations with the BBC, but that that does not particularly matter, because Sky will happily snap it up, possibly as a pre-season or midweek competition.

"You might find that when Super League starts, the Challenge Cup no longer assumes the overwhelming importance it does now." Take that and extract the nostalgia from it.

There are other sacrifices that may be required in order for rugby league to take its place in the sun. Ashes Tests, as we have understood them for almost 90 years, have been an early casualty of the war between Super League and the ARL. Even the tour against Super League opposition in Australia this autumn is dependent upon circumstances over which Lindsay, or anyone else in Britain, has no control.

If the court case in Sydney goes against Super League next week, as it is expected to do, there might be no international play-offs and no tour to Australia. "We would carry on alone until Super League in Australia is free to join in," he says. "It wouldn't be a disaster. Super League is not a one-year deal - it's a way of life."

There could be some complex machinations involved in keeping that way of life going in Australia. An offshore competition? A game sufficiently different from rugby league as to escape the court's strictures? Both are ideas that have been discussed, Lindsay acknowledges.

There is another possibility. Australian Super League players - barred from playing at home - could play Super League here. "I don't think clubs would turn down the opportunity of having Laurie Daley or Allan Langer on their books," he says intriguingly.

There is a tacit acknowledgement here that Super League, in its first European season, will need all the help it can get. The shortened, transitional season that ended on Sunday has not been a success, although Lindsay believes that clubs who blame it for falling gates and declining interest are seeking alibis for their own failings.

Interest, ho-wever, needs to be won back. The competition needs to be truly competitive, something which Lindsay believes can be achieved by a salary cap limiting clubs to spending 40 per cent of their income on players.

Will that do anything to end Wigan's domination? He says that it will, "because they spend more than 40 per cent now."

The financial rules under which clubs will operate go much further than that. A document which is on its way to them specifies what they must do and how much they must spend on doing it, in all areas of their operation. They will have to present monthly accounts and be subject to unannounced spot checks - a revolution in the culture of the game that will be rather more startling than switching to summer - or they will simply not get their Murdoch money.

"These are things that had to be done. Otherwise the game was just going to wither away. As it is, I think we need three years to firmly plant Super League in this country. You won't be able to judge it in the first season, coming straight after the last winter season. But in 1997, it will be building up and in 1998 it will be colossal."

And it will not be a colossus in chains. We have Maurice Lindsay's word for that.