Over the festive period, Jordan Weir was lucky enough on behalf nothingbutleague to speak to Super League General Manager Blake Solly in one of our biggest interviews for the site to date.
The Australian born Solly took over his role on June 1st 2014 and quickly has become an integral part of Super League and Rugby League as the first year of the New Era took place in 2015.
We would like to extend our thanks to Blake for speaking to us just before Christmas as he was in Australia visiting family.
JORDAN WEIR: 2015 was the first season of the New Era in the game. The League Leaders came down to the final seconds and the Grand Final was settled by one two points in a fantastic final at Old Trafford. Did this season live up to the “Every Minute Matters” tag.
BLAKE SOLLY: Absolutely, I think from the first night of the season from Wigan and Widnes and the way that match was played and ended to the Grand Final, there were so many weeks and so many matches all the way through the season where no-one could accurately predict who was going to win until the final minute. I think there was a few games that typified that. Castleford versus St Helens at the Jungle, the Ryan Hall try in the dying seconds at Huddersfield in the final round of the Super 8 phase and then the Grand Final itself, who was to say that Wigan weren’t going to score a freak try in the last minute and steal the game from Leeds. So absolutely Every Minute Mattered in 2015.
JORDAN WEIR: We seen that some attendances dropped in the Super 8 stages especially some of the big games compared to the league season. What can be done to combat this?
Leeds v Wigan – 3524
Saints v Wigan – 884
Cas V Warrington – 2027
BLAKE SOLLY: I think the thing to remember is that at that time of year there is always a drop-off in attendances as School Holidays start and the British Summer is in full swing, I think we can get better with our scheduling, I think that everyone agreed in 2015 it was a new concept, a new structure, so the most important thing was try and make it as good as we could and we did. But I think even when you look at the scheduling for the regular season, it’s a significant improvement in 2016. Re the Super 8’s, I think clubs are getting better and better are marketing their match days as well, if you look at what Warrington are doing with their memberships and the way they are making the match day experience a hell of a lot better, I am confident we won’t see the same drop off. I know St Helens have got some really exciting plans as well. I think as a whole, the game recognises the need to improve the fan experience, that relying on fans and their passion for their club to get them to go and watch games is no longer enough and people also want a great experience that compares with the sort of experience they would have if they went to the pub for a meal or if they went to the movies or if they went shopping. Our clubs are getting better and better at it and we know that’s one thing we have to work really hard on is to get the fan experience right and if we do, some of those reductions in crowds we seen in the Super 8’s stage will turn around pretty swiftly.
JORDAN WEIR: Lee Radford has stated publicly that he would like to see the Super 8’s structured differently. How often will the RFL and of course the Super League will be looking into reviewing the structure?
BLAKE SOLLY: Certainly not for 2016. I think the one of the great success stories of 2015 was that right from the first ball being kicked off in the Wigan versus Widnes game that there was a lot of attention on how teams were playing and teams had to be consistent all the way through until the end of the season to get through to the Grand Final. That was one of the criticisms of the structure before it. Teams could have months where they were out of form and then still recover enough form to finish in the top 8 and somehow go and play in or win the Grand Final. Whilst understandably coaches are under pressure, it’s a tough job and coaching is an immensely difficult thing to be doing, but I think that the people recognize that 2015 was a hell of lot better and that it’s actually for the clubs to improve themselves and be closer to the top 4 come the Super 8’s then actually the need for the structure to change. I think that everyone will recognize the 2015 season was a huge improvement on what we have had before, it was one of the best Super League seasons of all-time. So why would you alter a structure that in year 1 has been so successful. I don’t agree with Lee, I don’t think it’s right to be changing it, I think it’s for the clubs themselves to improve and make sure they are in the firing line when it come to the end of the season. It is not for the league to try weaken what we set out to do in the first place, which was make sure the best teams from February to October play in the big games.
JORDAN WEIR: The 2016 Magic Weekend is going back to the North East as we visit St James’ Park in Newcastle for the second year. How easy a decision was it too take the weekend back up to Newcastle? The 2015 event was a great success with clubs really taking to heart. e.g. Widnes with their NUFC inspired shirt with proceeds going to the Bobby Robson Foundation. Record Attendances on Saturday and the weekend.
BLAKE SOLLY: It was inevitably a tough decision because the Magic Weekend has got better year in, year out. It’s now an event that stadia and cities around the country have a strong desire to host, we had a few great years at Etihad and Manchester Council were extremely supportive partners and Manchester City were great as well. But I think you are right last year was the best Magic Weekend. The clubs and the fans of the clubs took Newcastle to heart and I think Newcastle took Rugby League to its heart, so on the basis of the support that was offered from the council and the great relationship with the stadium, it was a good idea to go back to Newcastle in 2016, build on the success we had in 2015 and hopefully make it a bigger and better event than ever before. I think there is also there is some really strong reasons to go back to Newcastle, Sky Try Rugby League investment going in at the grass roots level, we have an academy that is starting to produce talented players at the next level and then with the ownership by Newcastle Falcons of Newcastle Thunder. So I think for a lot of reasons Newcastle makes sense, the fact that 2015 was a great success made the decision a lot easier than it might have been. Now we are all systems go for another great event in 2016.
JORDAN WEIR: Before the decision was made for Newcastle we ran a poll at NothingButLeague and The Olympic Stadium in London came out on top. It held the second test between England and New Zealand in 2015, could that be a possible destination for the future?
BLAKE SOLLY: Possibly. I think that the Olympic Stadium was a great venue for the England V New Zealand game, although with West Ham moving in they have a fairly important anchor tenant. We are pretty open about the fact we want to take big games to London, I thought Wigan’s match down there against Catalan was a great success, the Challenge Cup final was one of the best attendances we had for many years and also the feedback we had from the fans was very strong. We want to take big Rugby League events to London, at the moment we are very happy with Magic in Newcastle but it’s something you could never rule out. The relationship with the Olympic Park is growing and developing, so it’s too early to say for certainty whether we will take Magic there but it’s something that we are open minded about.
JORDAN WEIR: Super League is able to boast that anyone can beat anyone on its day, do you feel proud we now have a competition where “Every Minute Matters” and perhaps other sports will look at Super League and the sport in general and be envious?
BLAKE SOLLY: Absolutely very proud, But I think credit lays with the clubs. The clubs are the ones that took the brave decision at the start of 2014, I think the ones that have worked extremely hard to ensure that what happens on the pitch is exciting, to the highest standard and that they then can go and capitalise on that and make the atmosphere off the pitch extraordinary. I think we should be really proud of the sport, we had a fantastic year which has been capped with England beating New Zealand in the test series, that sets up a really good platform for 2016. I think that more and more people in the wider sporting community are sitting up and taking notice of where Super League and Rugby League is in the UK. 2016 is a hugely important year for us, Super League will again be very good but that series at the end of the year where Australia who will be desperate to regain their crown as the World’s best Rugby League nation, New Zealand desperate to defend it and then a winning England team with Scotland in the Four Nations will be tremendously exciting, it will turn people who have a passing interest in Rugby League into Rugby League fans for a month and then we have the opportunity to convert them week in week out Super League fans in 2017.
JORDAN WEIR: You mentioned there about the wider game, at the back end of 2015 we seen Kevin Sinfield finish second in BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. What has the done for the game’s wider presence and profile and how can we build on this?
BLAKE SOLLY: Firstly, huge credit to Kevin, I think that everyone in Rugby League for a long time knew what great character, great integrity and what strength of will Kevin possesses and it was great that he got the recognition for that, so credit and congratulations to Kevin. For the sport again it shows the maturing we have done over the last 12-18 months, that we now feel comfortable on that stage, that we can coordinate and collectively show how strong the passion for Rugby League is in this country and that we make people sit up and take notice. It creates opportunities for us now, I think it won’t be another 40 years until another Rugby League player or coach is nominated for the award. Again I think people in the wider sporting fraternity are now sitting up and taking notice of Super League and Rugby League and it’s now our opportunity to create more of them opportunities for our stars to stand on the big stages and when they are to make sure that they are we are in the best possible position to take advantage of it. Huge credit has to go to (head of media at Leeds) Phil Daly who did a wonderful job and to Calum Gillies (Head of RFL Communications) who worked very hard to make sure that any opportunity there was to push Kevin’s worth for Sports Personality, how great the sport is and what a team leader he is they took it and maximised it. I think this is the first of many and this is the standard we should set ourselves now, if we do more and more this, Rugby League’s profile will only continue to grow.
JORDAN WEIR: We talked about the Super 8’s earlier, this time round the middle 8’s didn’t provide promotion as Bradford lost out to Wakefield in the “Million Pound Game.” How confident are you that we will see some changes to the clubs playing in the top division with this new structure?
BLAKE SOLLY: If anyone can say with any certainty that the make-up of the Super League will or won’t change they are a much braver man than me, having sat through the emotion of that “Million Pound Game” and seeing how close Bradford were to being promoted. I think if the penalty goal was kicked it would have been a much different story. I don’t think it’s about teams being promoted I think it’s about the series being extremely competitive and the “Million Pound Game” creating the emotion it was meant to do. I think you can’t really predict whatever is going to happen in Rugby League and I think this season showed that. Leigh and Bradford are very ambitious and have recruited very strongly and feel that they are now in a position when they can compete even better when it gets to that Super 8 phase. There’s also been other successes. If you speak to Halifax and Sheffield they will feel very much that 2015 was a great experience for them and allows them to continue their greater progression as clubs to the point where in 2,3,5 years’ time, they are going to be knocking on the door of Super League. And, if they get there they are going add value to the competition. I couldn’t ever predict whether teams are going to be promoted or relegated but I do know that the Super 8 qualifiers will continue to provide a lot of emotion, a lot of excitement and an ideally keep fans interested right to the end of the season.
JORDAN WEIR: 2016 sees a second French club join the UK leagues as we welcome Toulouse back to League 1. Are they plans to expand into Scotland, Ireland and emerging nations such as Italy and Malta?
BLAKE SOLLY: Not really one for me, Ralph Rimmer and Nigel Wood will have a better idea on that, it just doesn’t fall under my remit.
JORDAN WEIR: This maybe not for you as well but some Championship clubs do seem concerned about receiving enough funding from the RFL, what can be done to ensure clubs like Halifax, Sheffield, Bradford and Leigh get enough of the pie to have enough to compete to get into Super League?
BLAKE SOLLY: This one is probably more for me, I think that the amount of funding that goes into the Championship at the moment is a significant increase on what they were getting before 2014. I think it’s entirely appropriate. I think it’s imperative on them to grow their businesses and I think clubs like Leigh and Bradford have been showing the way. They are trying to grow, I think that the current way in which the TV money is proportioned is entirely appropriate, and that it is now for the Championship clubs to show their worth and grow as businesses just as the Super League clubs have had to do. Any further cross-subsidization from Super League into the Championship is completely wrong and that the deal was struck at the start of 2014 for 2015 and beyond is entirely appropriate and shouldn’t be disturbed.
JORDAN WEIR: Of course you are an Australian, the role similar to yours in the NRL is vacant at the moment after Dave Smith left the post, is that a role you could see yourself occupying in the future?
BLAKE SOLLY: No, I absolutely love the job I do as Super League General Manager. I think that the sport in the UK is extremely well placed to grow. I love living in the North of England – it is a wonderful place to live and work, so I’m pretty happy where I am at the moment.