Yorkshire rivals eye place at union’s top table

Ali Birch stretches high to win the ball on the lineout
Ali Birch stretches high to win the ball on the lineout
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Yorkshire’s leading clubs insist they are ready for another shot at the big time as the race for the Premiership intensfies.

Both Leeds Carnegie and Rotherham Titans have positioned themselves to challenge for promotion in the second half of the Championship season, and the noises coming from both suggests they are determined to last the course.

Leeds are the better equipped of the two, both in terms of infrastructure and pedigree, while Rotherham have turned heads with their play this season under rookie head coach Lee Blackett.

Seasoned Titans observers will be mindful, though, of the post-Christmas slump which in the past two seasons has undermined their early-season promise.

How serious Rotherham are about a third stab at a place among the elite is a question head coach Lee Blackett is wary of answering at present.

But behind the scenes, with a proposal to put together for the Professional Game Board by March 1 to meet the minimum standards criteria, the big questions already need attention.

Most pertinent is where they would play should they realise their promotion ambition, with Clifton Lane deemed unsuitable for top-flight rugby.

The Titans are understood to have been sounding out football clubs in South Yorkshire over a possible ground share.

Until then, it is a case of continuing to punch above their weight.

“We would now be disappointed if we didn’t get into the top four” said chairman Nick Cragg.

“And I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t. We’ve got three of the top five still to play at home.

“We will definitely be trying to win promotion, there’s no doubt about that.

“Then we would have the problem of finding somewhere to play, and that is something we have got to think about right now, because we have to submit our plans by March.

“We have got a verbal offer of playing at a football club in South Yorkshire.

“It is not in Rotherham, but it is an offer that would ensure the RFU standards criteria is not an issue. It would be nice to be able to play in the Premiership in Rotherham, but that is the reality we face.”

Rotherham know better than most the boom or bust financial reality that promotion could bring.

They nearly went to the wall the last time they went up and came straight back down a decade ago.

With that in mind, should the fairytale start continue, Cragg assures fans they would endeavour to be a lot more prudent with the club’s finances.

“Under myself and Martin Jenkinson we have never been in financial trouble,” said Cragg.

“Our budget would be lower than our competitors and we would be surviving to fight another day.

“But that’s no different to where we are in this division. We are punching above our weight here; we would just have to punch even harder in the top division.

“We would love to be able to have another crack at the Premiership, but we wouldn’t go bust doing it.”

Ambition off the field is countered by caution on it.

Blackett, 31, has a wise head on the youngest head coaching shoulders in the division.

His team might be second only to London Welsh, but it is the four teams below his that are separated by just three points that concern him most.

“We’d love this club to be back in the Premiership but there’s a lot of hard work to go before that,” warned Blackett.

“We are doing remarkably well but we are keeping our feet firmly on the ground.

“The reason we are where we are is we have put a lot of hard work in, and we’ll need a lot of luck going into the second half of the season.

“If we are lucky enough to make the top four we’ll start thinking about things then, but until then it’s one game at a time.

“You have to remember in the last six seasons this club has finished no higher than seventh, so we’re trying to beat that this year, and hopefully by doing that we get into the top four.”

Up the M1, Leeds have the infrastructure and academy to make Rotherham envious.

They are also putting together a young team that in flashes this season has looked capable of striding ahead of the Championship pack and back into the big time. What they lack is bums on seats. Attendances of a little over 5,000 during their Premiership days are halved in the second tier.

“The level of support will determine just how successful a club we can be,” said Carnegie chief executive Gary Hetherington.

“That support has grown, but only steadily. We are not satisfied with that and it remains our objective to grow our support base and to grow commercially.

“On the pitch we are really pleased with the progress that has been made.

“We started on a new path 18 months ago to harness the best of the local talent – supplemented with experienced hands – to organically develop a squad capable of winning promotion to the Premiership.

“The progress last year and the strong finish of the team under Diccon Edwards has been built on this season under Jimmy Lowes.

“Looking ahead to the second half of the season we believe we have as good a chance as anyone of winning promotion.

“Having said that, the standard of the division has improved and on any given day, anyone can beat anyone.

“We have Premiership standard facilities, an elite backroom staff and a great academy that has been boosted by the arrival of Sir Ian McGeechan who has been instrumental in restructuring, refocusing that and engaging it around the county. We have everything in place to go for it.”

nick.westby@ypn.co.uk