Guy Easterby hoping Yorkshire clubs can reach the top once again

STANDING among the elite of European rugby does not make witnessing the worrying decline of professional rugby union in Yorkshire any less painful for Guy Easterby.

Leinster head of rugby operations Guy Easterby, right, with head coach Leo Cullen. Picture courtesy of Leinster/Sportsfile.

The former Ireland scrum-half, who hails from Tadcaster and began his career with Harrogate, has been saddened to see the descent of one of his erstwhile clubs Rotherham and now Yorkshire Carnegie, too.

Leinster’s head of rugby operations was in Newcastle at the weekend as the Irish province went in search of a record fifth Champions Cup success.

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Ultimately, the holders fell, losing out to a brilliant Saracens side that is fast emerging as one of the greatest club sides of all time.

Guy Easterby. Picture: REX.

There was a time, though, that Carnegie – or Leeds Tykes as they were then known – graced Europe’s premier competition, too, with hopes of one day sitting at the top.

They ventured to doyens Toulouse and battled with Perpignan but, 13 years on from their last such campaign and eight years after the costliest of relegations from the Premiership, they are preparing to be a part-time Championship club next term.

Such is the perilous state of their finances, some wonder if even that will be manageable.

Carnegie have long been rated the best chance of securing a regular Broad Acres presence in the Premiership but that dream is essentially now over.

Leinster senior coach, Stuart Lancaster commiserates with his players after their defeat to Saracens in the Champions Cup Finalon Saturday. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images.

“You don’t want to see it disappear; I’d be gutted if that were to happen,” said Easterby, who eventually finished his decorated playing career off at Otley.

“The game needs a strong, professional Yorkshire club and, with the best will in the world, Doncaster (Knights) have had unbelievable consistency in their performances but they are not set up to get in the Premiership.

“Rotherham had a long period of dominance, playing up there twice, but have dropped off themselves.

“They are still a well put-together club but they’re not there either (Premiership standard).

Saracens Billy Vunipola makes a break through the Leinster lineat St James' Park on Saturday. Picture: Richard Sellers/PA

“Leeds did it for a while and got to the Heineken Cup but it is a difficult one.

“I just think it would be very sad to see the demise of Yorkshire rugby at that level as I think it is really important for the sport in general to have a club from the county in the Premiership.”

Although they struggled this season, Doncaster have impressed on and off the field and have just recruited former British Lion prop Tom Smith as head coach to signal their ambition.

Still, having reached the Championship final in 2016, ahead of the following year’s top-four play-offs they conceded they could not afford to go up even if they did succeed and they hope for further central funding before making their push.

Rotherham, whom Easterby joined from Harrogate in the fledgling days of professionalism, are now a part-time National One side after last year’s relegation from the Championship.

Those remaining at Carnegie – and there are few – will be desperate to avoid falling further.

Easterby, who won 28 caps for Ireland and played in the 2003 World Cup, added: “There is a big rugby league element in Yorkshire but there is a big hotbed of rugby generally.

“The problem that I see is that there are so many clubs at a similar level. Carnegie have tried to take that step away from that and have at times, as have Rotherham before as well. But Carnegie have been trying to drag people who go to watch other games in to a high standard of rugby.

“But I don’t think it’s quite that easy because people have strong loyalties to their local clubs.

“I think of Harrogate – where I started – I don’t think you’d see many people from there going to watch a Carnegie game. They want to go watch Harrogate, so it’s not always easy to do both.”

It is not only Yorkshire that has issues. Newcastle, who did splendidly when hosting Europe’s blue-riband event at the weekend, have, of course, been relegated from the Premiership.

The odds are stacked in their favour to make an immediate return but the facts are that the only top-flight side north of Leicester next season will be Sale Sharks.

Strangely, Carnegie’s alarming situation is a regular topic of conversation among the Leinster changing room.

Their senior coach is Stuart Lancaster, the former England chief who played for Tykes, helped establish their Academy and then coached the first-team in the Premiership before moving on to the RFU in 2008.

Easterby, 48, said: “Stuart and I talk about it all the time. We both have an interest in Yorkshire rugby and he has a strong affiliation to Carnegie as well.

“It’s not something you want to see – Yorkshire should have a team in the Premiership. But it’s not easy.

“There’s a lot of investment needed and, in fairness, to the different owners, they have put a lot of money into the game and Carnegie.

“For whatever reason, it has not been sustainable and that is probably down to the crowds and how they generate that.

“When you see Leeds Rhinos with 16, 17,000 there and Leeds – when they were in the Premiership – getting six or seven thousand, that’s the big difference.

For now, though, stricken Carnegie can only watch on as their squad further fragments; academy product Harry Davey, 20, and lock Cian Romaine, 23, have both followed director of rugby Chris Stirling to rivals Cornish Pirates.