Twenty-four years ago, on Sunday, Gary Hetherington took his place at the beginning of a new era in the rugby league – now he’s in another potentially defining phase for sports.
On March 29, 1996, the Sheffield Eagles team from Hetherington competed against 17,873 fans in the French capital against Paris St. Germain to signal the start of summer rugby and the Super League.
Almost a quarter of a decade on Hetherington has been the chief executive of Leeds Rhinos as the sport fights for the devastating effects of Hetherington Corona virus Pandemic.
The 66-year-old does not lose the importance of both eras.
Hetherington said, “The whole journey to the start of the Super League was a great adventure. The game in the mid-1990s was very difficult and a number of clubs had financial difficulties.
“The game was facing an uncertain future, and one of the things that was questioned as a possible salvation was switching to summer rugby.
“The RFL has set up a working group of mine, Chris Caisley in Bradford and Jim Quinn in Oldham, and we strongly advocated that we should consider changing the summer season.
“Then the Super League war in Australia came out of the blue, the legacy of which was a significant investment by Sky Sports in the British game. That was a real game changer – it immediately led us towards the Super League and summer with full-time squads. “
After what Hetherington calls a “turbulent time”, when the composition of the new competition was decided and the mergers of the clubs were vehemently rejected, a league with 12 teams began in the great surroundings of Paris.
Nobody seemed to know what to expect.
Hetherington said: “Like everyone else, I expected half to play in front of an abandoned stadium, even though we knew there were around 1,500 Sheffield fans.
“We had no idea that 17,000 would come. Many of them arrived late, but the whole evening had an event feeling. It was a time of real insecurity, but great excitement. “
The game brought the French team into an exciting opening fight with 30:24 victories, which also announced the start of the video referee.
Hetherington has never seen the game before, but intends to show it tomorrow on the occasion of its Sky Sports anniversary. It will provide a temporary distraction from the serious problems the rugby league is currently facing.
Hetherington added: “It is an extremely disruptive time and the consequences could be very massive. It is unprecedented and we, as a sports and single club company, face major challenges.
“But one of our strengths is that we are a sport that has emerged from our communities and is still connected to its communities. Our supporter base is loyal, much more than some other sports, and we have created the feeling that everyone is there together – players, coaches, administrators, fans, sponsors.
“All stakeholders in the game are very committed and we will need that.” We all have to make some financial changes to get through this time, and once we do that, we will need people’s support more than ever.
“The rugby league has a 130-year history of fighting adversity and this is probably the greatest challenge we have ever been faced with. Now we need more than ever to stand up and face the challenge.”