Nick Westby: Arrogant, divisive ..... but it might be our best chance yet for union glory

Leeds Tykes celebrate winning the Powergen Cup in 2005
Leeds Tykes celebrate winning the Powergen Cup in 2005
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Whatever your opinion on the controversial rebranding of Leeds Carnegie, the club have certainly got the region talking about rugby union.

The news early last week that Leeds are to repackage themselves as Yorkshire Carnegie from next season sent ripples through the county’s union fraternity.

“Arrogance” was the word of choice in the Twittersphere last Monday evening.

How can one team from a great county, that has a deep network of clubs at professional, semi-professional, amateur, community and junior level, purport to be the de facto club to represent Yorkshire?

The vitriol came loudest from the Clifton Lane faithful, whose beloved Rotherham Titans are enjoying their best season for many a year.

Indeed, at the time of the announcement, Rotherham were locked in second place in the Greene King IPA Championship with Leeds and as well placed as their county rivals to complete their promotion ambition and seal a place in the Premiership.

It is not beyond the realms that Yorkshire Carnegie could kick-off in the Championship next season, looking enviously up at Rotherham Titans in the Premiership. To that end, the reaction from Rotherham’s followers is understandable.

But the crux of this rebranding is about more than just a name change, more than just an assumption that you are Yorkshire’s No 1, however much that does smack of a little arrogance.

This is about getting to the Premiership, staying there, and being successful.

It is about carrying the name of Yorkshire into the Premiership and onto the European stage.

Since the dawn of professionalism in the mid-1990s, millions of pounds has been thrown at attempting to break through the glass ceiling and staying there by the owners and sponsors of Leeds Carnegie, Rotherham Titans and Doncaster Knights.

Rotherham did it twice and nearly went bust. Doncaster never over-stretched and so never got there, while Leeds, let us not forget, spent eight years in the top flight, establishing themselves in their first spell as Powergen Cup winners and, in one season, a top-six club. But the fact that they were relegated three times in seven seasons and have been left with no money to try it again suggests present circumstances outweigh former glories.

Leeds might very well achieve a fourth promotion in 13 years this season, but they have come to accept at Leeds Rugby that the city on its own cannot sustain Premiership rugby.

Average attendances of a little over 2,000 in the Championship become a little over 5,000 in the Premiership, but they are not figures to support a club with ambitions of being more than just a team to make up the numbers among the elite.

It would seem that Gary Hetherington, the club’s chief executive, has given up the ghost on Leeds. The country’s third largest city is a one-club football town and an area besotted by its all-conquering rugby league team. Union has never really stood a chance.

Yorkshire Carnegie may still call Leeds home, having retained the infrastructure of Carnegie; Headingley Stadium, the Rhinos, warts and all. But it is looking increasingly like it might not be home for long with initial plans to play ‘home’ games across the White Rose, as they have done for the past 18 months.If Leeds has failed, then maybe calling themselves Yorkshire and harnessing the vast resources of the county may enhance their chances of being involved in a ring-fencing of the Premiership, if such a day – one the power-brokers at Carnegie yearn for – ever comes.

Whether that comes or not, this new entity will harness the best of Yorkshire’s talent through five regional academies spanning the whole county.

Hetherington calls this the county’s last chance at creating a sustainable and successful Premiership club. Although a tad dramatic, and no doubt designed to give potential investors with deep pockets a timely nudge, I am inclined to agree.

Leeds have been unable to do it, and it gets harder each year.

Rotherham, sadly, are having to look outside the town for a potential ‘home’ for next season because nowhere is big enough to accommodate them and satisfy the stringent Premier Rugby criteria. Those that are, are either in a state of disrepair (Millmoor) or do not want them (New York).

The fact that Rotherham have been talking to clubs such as Mansfield Town about a potential ground-share is a sorry state of affairs and as harsh as it sounds, sums up the state of big-time rugby union in this county.

As vast as Yorkshire is, as rich as its heritage and as deep as the reach goes into the myriad teams, success has proved unsustainable. But it is from that seam of talent and resources that Yorkshire Carnegie hope to mine a shot at glory.

Sir Ian McGeechan has led the rapid development of the club’s RFU-approved academy and will now lead the search for fresh investment.

Carnegie seek between £2m and £4m over a three-year period to give themselves a chance of making this successful.

They want Yorkshire money, from across the county, but their best chance of that might be through McGeechan’s contacts in London. A regular speaker at city events, the Lions legend now has to convince bankers and investors with White Rose links to buy into his vision.

Hopefully, he has better luck convincing them than the club have had in persuading the Yorkshire union family that this is a wise move.

One element forgotten in all this is the actual fans of rugby union in Leeds. Ditching the city’s name and effectively saying the chances of sustaining Premiership rugby under the banner of Leeds is over, is a kick in the teeth to those who have fought to make it a reality in the past, and those who have handed over money to see that dream unfold.

Union has been played in Leeds since 1878. Headingley and Roundhay forged a path in the 1900s until in 1992 they were merged to form Leeds RUFC.

Through the Tykes and then Carnegie, Leeds fans have followed their city club across Europe, always acknowledging that a relationship with a name was never unconditional.

Now they have to accept there will be no more Leeds, full stop.

Yorkshire Carnegie hinges on two things – money and bums on seats.

If they materialise, then this divisive decision may well work.

If they do not, then Hetherington’s stark warning may prove prescient.