"AN important phrase for us is 'students rubbing shoulders with champions'," said Leeds Metropolitan University's vice-chancellor Professor Simon Lee when his organisation took majority ownership of Leeds Tykes last May.
Although the rebranded Leeds Carnegie won National One, describing them as 'champions' might be stretching credibility a bit. It has been a season of struggle in the Guinness Premiership, with 15 defeats in 18 league games.
A stirring victory over Newcastle a fortnight ago did little to alter the widespread perception that they are heading back to National One – following last week's record drubbing at Saracens, they are 14 points adrift of safety and most bookmakers have closed the book on relegation.
Is it then fair to say that the university's involvement with the rugby union club has not turned out as Lee envisaged? Are the Met regretting their decision to come on board? Are they tempted to cut their losses and abandon the club?
The answer, according to Lee, is an emphatic 'no' in all three cases. Also the chairman of the club, Lee is hardly ecstatic about what has happened this season, but he is encouraged rather than put off – not least because attendances are higher than ever before.
The university took a majority 51 per cent shareholding of the club in the business equivalent of a free transfer from Paul Caddick's Leeds CF&AC company, which owns Leeds Rhinos and still holds 49 per cent ownership of the union club. Leeds Met have 'a commitment for at least 10 years'.
"We would like it to be indefinite, but we felt in fairness to both parties it was right to review after 10 years," explained Lee. "We would have wanted to go ahead whether or not promotion had been won. It wasn't because we could somehow cash in on promotion. We'd been there before and we didn't run away when Leeds were relegated. Similarly this season, whatever happens, we're interested in the long run.
"I was under no illusions about how tough it was going to be. I saw Leeds through 2004-05, and then I saw them all through the next season with allegedly a much stronger team, with some absolute megastars, and they got relegated. So I knew that relegation was always a possibility.
"I'd like us to have got twice the crowd and I'd like us to have got twice as many wins at this stage. There are games we might have won – the dividing line between us being on the same number of points as Worcester or Newcastle, and where we are, is very thin."
Leeds are probably heading down, but buoyed by recent results – apart from the defeat to Saracens – and by the performances of unheralded players from National One backgrounds, Lee is gazing upwards. He said: "We don't want to be just bouncing back and forth (from National One). I don't see it as a disgrace to be among the top, say, 15 clubs, but the real challenge is not just accepting with good grace that you are occasionally in National One – it is how do you get into the Heineken Cup and the Premiership play-offs?
"We want to win the Heineken Cup. Over the decade we are committed to being involved – the first decade as I'd like to see it – obviously, that's our aim. If it isn't your aim, you shouldn't be involved."
Lee is adamant that he will never interfere on the playing side, but he ventures the opinion that, given the value of a year's Premiership experience to the current squad, the addition of 'two or three players of the highest quality' could help Leeds establish themselves in the top flight and become contenders for silverware – Leeds Met, who will split the club's estimated 500,000 annual losses with Leeds CF&AC, offered financial support for such players this season, but Leeds were unsuccessful in their attempts to sign them.
The chairman feels that 'a terrific figurehead from the sport' on the board could enable Leeds to attract such stars.
He said: "Our club is perceived as not as fashionable. We've got to get across to these players and their agents that we do have a stable set-up and a long-term vision, that we do want to build the crowd."
However, with the salary cap doubling to 4m next season, it will become even harder for Leeds to recruit well enough to bridge the gap to the top sides. Leeds Met have no intention of forking out millions of pounds, but Lee is looking to generate funds by increasing crowds, and through commercial ventures with companies interested in raising their profiles through a twin-pronged attack via the university and the rugby club.
Before Leeds can think about challenging for honours, they need to make sure that they win National One next season – or shock everybody and stay up this season.
Failure to win National One would have dire consequences, because Leeds would have no parachute payment for a second season in the second tier. That eventuality would test the extent of the university's financial commitment.
"It would be challenging," said Lee, who believes that English rugby union needs a strong presence in Yorkshire. "I don't think you'd just carry on as you were, getting poorer, losing players more quickly. I think there'd be change in the system, structural change. I'd imagine in Yorkshire the clubs would be encouraged to some sort of realignment if there was a prolonged exile – perish the thought. It isn't appropriate to worry about it too much."
This is not quite the reassurance that supporters want, and it is clear that Leeds Metropolitan University are far from sugar-daddies, but Lee and his organisation look set to steer a sensible course that will prevent Leeds Carnegie from slipping into the sort of spiral that has claimed several former top-flight clubs.
Time for leeds to get financial recognition for academy prospects
PROFESSOR Simon Lee intends to lobby the Rugby Football Union to ensure that Leeds Carnegie and other clubs receive financial recognition when players produced by their academies go on to play for England.
Under the agreement struck between the RFU and the Premiership clubs, teams will be compensated when players registered to them are called into the Test team, the Saxons A XV or age-group international sides. However, the clubs who nurtured them will get nothing if they have moved on.
Former Leeds academy players Danny Care and Jordan Crane are under consideration for the England side, but they left for Harlequins and Leicester, respectively, when the former Tykes were relegated two years ago. Lee, the Leeds chairman, is concerned that the good work done by director of rugby Stuart Lancaster – formerly the academy manager at Headingley – will go unrewarded.
Lee said: "Stuart developed some of the players such as Danny and Jordan, who are going to be in the England squad in years to come, but as it currently stands, the club holding their contracts gets the benefits.
"Our argument would be, where have these players really come from? Who has really spent time with them? The answer is Stuart. How can the RFU not do us a favour and recognise the value of that? Over time, I think they will."