ACCORDING to the targets they set for themselves, 2015-16 was a failure for Yorkshire Carnegie but Sir Ian McGeechan believes progress has been made and, if they do eventually win promotion to the Premiership, crowds of 9,000 will flock to watch them.
When new chairman David Dockray and seven other investors formed the Yorkshire Tykes Limited board that, in late December 2014, assumed control of Carnegie, the plan was to finish in the Championship’s top two this season and, hopefully, earn a place among the elite.
It is, however, unfashionable Doncaster Knights who are fighting for that chance having stunned all but themselves by claiming second spot and taking their place in the Championship play-off final.
Admittedly, they trail by 15 points ahead of Wednesday’s second leg at leaders Bristol, an invidious position, but, nevertheless, they have stolen a march on their more illustrious county rivals.
McGeechan, Carnegie’s executive chairman who sought the £4m investment from those new members to spearhead what amounts to a last throw of a dice at making the club a sustainable Premiership club, acknowledges his side have fallen short, but only by the smallest of margins.
Furthermore, he says, the gains off-the-field have been great and he insists no one’s confidence has been knocked after a third-place finish and a play-off semi-final exit at the hands of Doncaster.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, the esteemed British Lions legend said: “It’s obviously disappointing having got to the play-offs but not reached the final.
“But we had the better of three-quarters of that semi aside from the first 40 of the first leg.
“We got to the final of the B&I Cup, too, so we are progressing; we are getting to the places we want to be, but we’ve just not quite finished it off.
“That’s probably as we’ve missed a bit of experience but, compared to last year (sixth) it’s quite a lot of progress and there’s some good things in place for next season.
“In terms of not finishing top two, we were a point away, and had some injuries at key times which probably didn’t help as we lost some continuity. Generally we finished the (regular) campaign well with just one loss in eight games and finishing second only gives you the option of playing home or away first in the semi.
“Personally, I felt as long as we were in the top three we were in a pretty good place and we were by quite a way (Carnegie finished 14 points ahead of fourth-placed Bedford Blues).”
The “good things” in place 69-year-old McGeechan refers to include the addition of revered forwards coach Steve Boden from Jersey and the return of James Lowes, the former head coach, to work under chief Bryan Redpath, while there has been further recruitment on the playing side, too.
Of course, Carnegie must earn a Premiership place soon – the likes of Dockray and co will not continually invest their fortunes without some sort of return – and that task could be made harder next season in that the play-offs format is set to be disbanded.
“It is all still part of ongoing negotiations between the RFU and PRL (Premiership Rugby Limited); nothing’s been finalised,” explained McGeechan.
“It’s been going on for around 12 months – that’s the strange thing – but does look more and more likely that it will revert to a first-past-the-post system.
“I don’t think that makes it harder (to earn promotion). As long as we know exactly what we have to do, it does not really matter.”
That is perhaps being too positive; Bristol finished 17 points in front of Carnegie and you would sense London Irish, relegated from the top flight, will be similarly strong as their replacements if it is the west country club do, as expected, go up rather than Doncaster.
Essentially, the margin for error reduces even further.
Granted, Carnegie, relegated in 2011, are not all only about the first-team; McGeechan’s plan is for their growing satellite academy across the Broad Acres, encompassing more than 15 other clubs, to provide players and coaches for the future of the entire county.
The club’s academy has just received a top rating from the RFU/PRL audit, “completely different” to three years ago when the former Headingley player initially returned to take up his current role. The sponsorship deal with Carnegie ends next year, but McGeechan says the club’s relationship with the university, and the working practices fostered, are “stronger than ever”, something they hope to continue.
The main problem – a lack of supporters – has not altered much and they still rarely get much more than 2,000 at Headingley, but McGeechan is unperturbed. “We’ve got to invest in it,” he admitted.