Leeds fans united in support of rugby codes at Headingley

THE concept was novel, the execution slick, and the support was plentiful and sent home happy.

Leeds Carnegie and Leeds Rhinos produced a cross-code festival of rugby at Headingley Carnegie on New Year's Day.

Carnegie kicked-off the proceedings with their crucial Aviva Premiership game with Gloucester at 1pm, a keenly-contested union encounter that was swiftly followed by the Rhinos' rearranged league friendly with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.

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Two clubs under the Leeds Rugby umbrella showcasing the merits of the 15- and 13-man games on one afternoon, in one ground, and on what was one surprisingly immaculate playing surface given the recent weather problems.

And what's more two victories, one that has been a long time in coming for the union men and another that suggests the West Yorkshire city's league team mean business in this year's Super League.

A combined attendance of 12,015 saw both games with the total going down as Carnegie's biggest gate of the season.

For them, the double-header was an opportunity to entice new fans to the sport and to the team.

The Rhinos already benefit from an impressive fan base with attendances regularly touching 17,000, despite league fans in Yorkshire having seven Super League clubs to choose from.

Union in the White Rose has always played second fiddle to league which thrives on being prominent in the sport's heartland.

Average attendances for Carnegie games at Headingley are around 5,000, though the potential has been shown in recent times for that to double, notably last April when Leeds defeated Worcester to preserve their Premiership status.

And there was enough on show other than the near-four hours of rugby to entertain the fans and families; with fireworks and dancing girls, the usual mascots and an opera singer from a reality TV programme.

In the union match there was even a throw back to league days; with former Warrington back Henry Fa'afili playing for Leeds and ex-Bradford Bulls try-scorer Lesley Vainikolo on the Gloucester team.

In September 2007, Vainikolo marked his union debut with five tries against Leeds but was considerably more subdued yesterday as Carnegie stifled the Cherry and Whites to claim that vital first win of the season.

The union fans who bit fingernails until they were raw watching Leeds hang on to victory, were swelled in number by the Rhinos fans who took over after 3pm with their drums and their horns.

"It was really exciting to see," said Leeds Carnegie's director of rugby Andy Key.

"I know it was a friendly for the Rhinos but a lot of people came down and hospitality wise it was virtually sold out for the game from a combination of the Rhinos and Carnegie.If it means there's a whole new set of Rhinos fans who came down and got behind Carnegie then bring it on, because every single person that comes through the turnstiles to support us will be greatly received."

Those union fans who stayed on to watch the Rhinos were royally entertained as Leeds ran in seven tries to defeat the Wildcats 40-22 in the Festive Challenge Trophy match.

Both sides named strong teams, although Leeds were without new signing Weller Hauraki whose debut was delayed due to paperwork.

Leeds scored tries through Luke Burgess, Lee Smith (2), Rob Burrow, Ben Jones-Bishop, Brent Webb and Kevin Sinfield, while Wakefield replied with tries from Michael Korkidas, Gareth Potts, Dale Ferguson and Kieran Hyde.

The Festive Challenge has seen attendances slipping into four figures in recent years, but with a big football match at Elland Road – Leeds United hosted Middlesbrough – on the same afternoon, it was a good response from the local rugby fraternity to produce an entertaining afternoon's action.