England head coach Stuart Lancaster has given a glowing endorsement to his former club’s radical plan to become Yorkshire Carnegie from next season.
Leeds have taken the county name in an attempt to harvest the best of the enormous pool of talent the White Rose has to offer.
The brainchild of Sir Ian McGeechan, Carnegie believe that shedding the city tag after 22 years for an all-encompassing county brand gives them the best chance of making a prolongued stab at Premiership sustainability.
The genesis of the idea actually occurred when Lancaster took office as Leeds’s academy manager back in 2000.
His plan then was to retain the best players throughout Yorkshire and make Leeds a force in English rugby.
While it may not have proven successful, 14 years on Lancaster still believes that it remains the best way to make the vision a reality.
“When I began the academy in 2000 the whole premise was to keep the county talent in Yorkshire and I still think that should be the goal of the county,” he began.
“Leeds have lost a lot of talent through the years, and they still are, and that’s the frustration for the county.
“When I was appointed academy manager there was a worry at the time that the academy would fold.
“I actually went to the Yorkshire committee and spoke to them about this very subject.
“I gave them examples of players like the Charlie Hodgsons and Mike Tindalls of this world who had left Yorkshire and I said we want to try and stop that talent drain.
“We’ve got lads who have come in from South Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, West and East who have all played for Leeds, but it’s then retaining that talent which is the important thing and this will hopefully do that.
“In principle, if you could create a county side then long-term it would be a very good thing for the area and it would be a strong team.”
Over the years, the Leeds academy has produced a number of talented players who have had to move outside the county to further their careers.
Hodgson and Tindall were snapped up by Sale and Bath respectively before there was an RFU academy like the one at Leeds to entice them.
But since then players like Jordan Crane, Danny Care and Luther Burrell all had to leave the club that produced them to satisfy their ambitions.
Even this season, before Leeds’s Premiership challenge had unravelled, club captain and academy graduate Jacob Rowan had signed for Gloucester because he wanted to further his career.
This is exactly what Yorkshire Carnegie hope to prevent in the future.
That two of those to have left Leeds, Burrell and Care, were the try-scorers at Twickenham in February when England defeated champions Wales in the Six Nations underlines Lancaster’s point – and the widespread belief – that the county is producing the talent to blossom on the world stage. Putting that to good use as a region has always been the conundrum, and one the England head coach believes can finally be answered as Yorkshire Carnegie.
“I think it’s a good idea because you can build something from teams that have a real identity,” continued Lancaster.
“The Yorkshire identity as a county is unbelievably strong when you look back through history.
“And going forward, the Tour de France is coming here, look at the boost that has given to Yorkshire.
“The county cricket side is a very strong identity, so there is something there to tap into.
“There is something special about coming from Yorkshire. I’m actually from Cumbria, but I’ve been here since I was 18.
“The current situation is pretty unique in that there is one RFU academy in the county. When I look at the other regional academy structures there are 14 academies, but there isn’t one that exists just in one county boundary.
“Sale have Cheshire and Lancashire; Newcastle have Cumbria, Northumberland and Durham; but the Yorkshire academy in Leeds is one for just this county.
“That’s the opportunity here and I couldn’t see any other club having the potential to do this, that’s why I think there are merits in it being considered and people should really give it some thought.”
As a Leeds resident since he joined the club aged 18, the man who cut his teeth as a player, academy boss and director of rugby at Headingley admits to a little sadness that the city’s name will no longer resonate in English rugby.
Carnegie chief executive Gary Hetherington has already said he believes this controversial move, one that has polarised opinion in the county, is the last throw of the dice in the club’s attempt to become a sustainable Premiership force.
Lancaster’s fears for the future do not stretch so far, but he does agree that sentimentality over a name is far outweighed by reality.
He said: “There’s a little shame that there won’t be a Leeds any more, but I’ve always personally put what’s best for the county and what’s best for the talent in the county ahead of anything, because that’s the bigger picture.
“My whole remit at the outset was to develop a system where you could bring the county’s players through and develop talent across the whole county.
“We had satellite centres at Doncaster, York, Huddersfield, Driffield, Hull Ionians. That was always my motivation; develop and retain that talent, and that’s the biggest driver now.
“I’ve now got my son coming through junior rugby so I get around the county a lot and the passion for rugby union is huge.
“The county network exists now because Leeds, through the development player programme, have revitalised the satellite academy programme, so that gives my son a chance in the central district.
“But equally I know there are opportunities out there in the east, west, south and the north.
“And that’s what it should be – a joined up county programme to develop our own talent.”