'A unique opportunity' - Yorkshire rugby union conference addresses academy pathway, player retention and refereeing shortfall

Sir Ian McGeechan described it as a ‘unique opportunity’ and Jason Robinson a chance to ‘make an impact’ as Yorkshire’s rugby union fraternity came together to formulate a united pathway for the region’s talent.

Representatives from more than 100 clubs attended the first rugby union conference for Yorkshire at Doncaster Knights on Friday to discuss the issues affecting the game from the county’s academy to player retention at clubs all the way down the pyramid to tier nine.

While nothing definitive was set in stone, it was a good workshop to explore issues and start putting solutions in place.

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Improving the pathway for players to senior rugby was high up on the agenda.

Doncaster Knights held the first Yorkshire rugby union conference on Friday (Picture: Getty Images)Doncaster Knights held the first Yorkshire rugby union conference on Friday (Picture: Getty Images)
Doncaster Knights held the first Yorkshire rugby union conference on Friday (Picture: Getty Images)

Yorkshire has an RFU-licenced academy that was taken on by the governing body in 2020 when Yorkshire Carnegie – the previous holders – went out of business and gave up the licence.

Subsequent collapses of Premiership clubs like Wasps, London Irish and Worcester has seen them follow similar models but Yorkshire now want to adapt the model further.

They currently have 550 boys in the academy from age 13 to 18, and 130-plus girls. But nothing after that.

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McGeechan, who was behind Leeds Tykes change to Yorkshire Carnegie a decade ago and a driver of a county-wide academy system, told the conference: “It’s a unique opportunity in Yorkshire.

The first Yorkshire rugby union conferenceThe first Yorkshire rugby union conference
The first Yorkshire rugby union conference

“I'm talking about post-18, giving them something to help them move forward.

“We have an academy that is not attached to one club which is unique where we can look at the best for individual players.

“Ideally we’d have scholarships so the academy works up to 23.”

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Doncaster Knights president and co-owner Steve Lloyd, whose idea it was to bring the whole Yorkshire rugby community together, added: “We don't have a Premiership side but what we have is an opportunity to have a county-wide academy system that includes contributions from every club.

“We’re great up to U16s and then they wander off to other academies and away from the county and that's not good for Yorkshire.”

Robinson, as a World Cup winner and famous son of Yorkshire, spoke of how the sport of rugby gave him a way out of a tough upbringing and called a collaborative approach between the clubs a chance for people to ‘make an impact’.

At local level, amongst clubs as far apart geographically as Mosborough, Keighley, Wensleydale, Wath and all points in between, there was a concern about bringing players back to their clubs once they had fallen out of the academy system.

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Yorkshire is home to huge rugby union ecosystem, contributing 8.5 per cent of the country’s club network. More than 100 clubs field men’s, women’s, boys and girls teams every week, catering for 12,000 age-grade registered players, but the clubs face common issues over funding from the governing body, coaching standards and the number of referees. Better coaching courses was one suggestion while making refereeing a more attractive proposition was another.

Last Saturday, for example, there were 23 games in West Yorkshire but only 11 appointed referees. One way they are looking to bridge that shortfall in South Yorkshire is by trying to enlist sports students as officials.

On the conference, Lloyd added: “There's never been anything of this size like it. But it’s not a one off, it’s ongoing. These are our problems, let's work on them together.”