Nick Westby: Carnegie nomads in danger of alienating their loyal following

Soil being removed from the Headingley Carnegie pitch
Soil being removed from the Headingley Carnegie pitch
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Followers of Leeds Carnegie would be well within their rights to express concern that their rugby union club is treading water. Just look at the facts:

They are a long way off being the best team in a second tier that is being won at a canter by Newcastle Falcons.

Leeds are effectively out of a Cup competition that is by no means a great tournament to win, but their only chance of silverware this season.

The club is cash-strapped to the extent that they struggle to lure big names to the club any more.

They have sold their share in the Premiership to Exeter Chiefs, and although they got £5m for that, they have put that in a side vault to use when, and if, they ever get back into the top flight.

On top of all that, Leeds Carnegie are homeless, temporarily at least, as they embark on a gospel-spreading mission across the county that has coincided – unintentionally, the club insists – with a relaying of the pitch at their Headingley Carnegie base.

With all that to consider, it would be understandable if fans felt decidedly disenfranchised by the club at present.

Taking all the points in turn, the outcome of the season was pretty much known in mid-summer when London Welsh won their appeal to earn promotion to the Premiership and Newcastle were demoted.

The Falcons were always going to soar against lesser opposition, such was the gulf in class between the two divisions.

News of Newcastle’s ratified relegation must have felt like a demotion in itself to everyone connected with Leeds, as a Championship up for grabs became a race for second place.

Leeds may be fourth but wins in only half of their eight games so far paints a clearer picture.

They lost two more matches, rather listlessly by all accounts, in the British and Irish Cup, which brings us on to the second point, the fact that a competition that still has two more games to run is effectively beyond them.

All talk of the Cup being used as a means to gain momentum to take into the league was rendered laughable by defeats to Leinster A and Jersey.

Thirdly, the club are still feeling the effects of relegation and the significant decrease in funding that brings, on top of hospitality opportunities and gate receipts.

Next, they sold their Premiership share to Exeter last month because only 13 clubs are allowed to have them, the 12 that are in the Premiership and one in the Championship, in this case, Newcastle.

In real terms, it amounts to a 25 per cent decrease in funding from the league, something that is not going to ease their financial woes any time soon and can only point to a longer exile from the top flight.

Finally, their nomadic status. Initially it was a three-game venture in October, November and March, designed at getting the club better connected within the White Rose county.

It is something they intend to continue next season and beyond, and to all intents and purposes it is a good idea in their attempts to spread the word and increase their fan base.

But news in the last fortnight that they are to take two more games on the road due to the relaying of the Headingley pitch taking longer than anticipated, means that there will be no official ‘home’ game for Leeds at Headingley between the first week in October and the start of January.

Chief executive Gary Hetherington is insistent that the decision to go ‘on the road’ with those initial three games was done before the club opted to 
re-lay their playing surface.

Fair enough, and with a champion team in the Leeds Rhinos sharing a pitch used all-year round, the timing was understandable.

But uprooting a team for almost half a season of home fixtures is hardly ideal for the players or the fans, who right now have nowhere to call home.

Leeds plan to gauge the views of their existing fans at the end of the five-game block of fixtures, to determine whether it was worthwhile and well-received.

They also take the long-term view in terms of finances, given the income they are missing out on – from hospitality and club shop etcetera – by not having games at Headingley.

Hetherington said: “I think our fans recognise the reasoning behind re-laying the pitch, to ensure more rugby can be played at Headingley during the winter months. We have bitten the bullet and invested in the long term.

“There was always going to be an element of disruption.

“We have taken a long-term view on it and we are hoping to reap the benefits down the road.”

For all concerned, it is hoped they do. But there is a risk here that Leeds Carnegie are neglecting those loyal supporters who have stayed with them through thick and thin.

People who live in Leeds and have turned up in good numbers and good heart on bitingly cold winter afternoons are in danger of being overlooked.

Were any of the 820 fans who saw Leeds lose meekly to a hitherto winless Jersey at York’s Clifton Park encouraged to make the trip to Headingley in the new year and cheer their new team on? Probably not.

There are positive signs emanating from Leeds Carnegie.

They still have an Academy to be proud of, a ground when they return that is the envy of some Premiership clubs, and they still do great work in the community which is repaid on a Sunday by scores of young rugby players taking a seat in the stands and their place on the field for the half-time junior game.

They even pulled off a coup in the summer by bringing Sir Ian McGeechan back to the club in an overseeing capacity.

But given all their travails, stacked against the success enjoyed by all-conquering stablemates Leeds Rhinos, it is becoming an increasingly inescapable feeling that the nomadic and under-achieving Leeds Carnegie are the ugly step-brother of Leeds Rugby.

and another thing...

The Yorkshire sporting fraternity lost one of its brightest coaches last week when Andre Bester left Rotherham Titans because of a disagreement over disciplinary matters.

In one of the many interesting interviews in his second spell with the club, Bester once told me that if his son didn’t do well in his forthcoming exams, “he would get a beating”.

It was a line delivered with a cheeky grin, as if to say, no need to call social services – not that I was in any rush to.

But as an analogy it served a purpose. The former South African army officer was a strict disciplinarian who expected nothing but the best from his son and his players. Time and again he got those levels from players who knew if they delivered under Bester they would be rewarded, either with good team performances or personal progression to the Premiership and beyond.

In his four completed seasons over two spells, Rotherham challenged for promotion on each occasion. In the three intervening years they battled to beat the drop.

As combustible as he was, he was an even better motivator and tactician. He was also stubborn for the way things ended at Rotherham, but he will be missed around these parts.