There is still a pathway to the top for Yorkshire’s young rugby union talent

A decade ago, Leeds Carnegie were playing their rugby in the Premiership, Doncaster Knights and Rotherham Titans were Championship clubs and Wharfedale and Otley were both members of National One.

ON THE MOVE: Yorkshire Carnegie's Ollie Fox has joined Bath.

When the 2020-21 season kicks-off, there will be just one Yorkshire side operating within the top two tiers of the English game.

Doncaster remain a Championship outfit, but the county-wide picture is a fairly bleak one, as far as the higher levels are concerned, anyway.

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It might be going too far to suggest that rugby in the Broad Acres is facing a crisis, however there has been little for the biggest White Rose teams to celebrate in recent times.

Ben Lazenby, head coach at Yorkshire Carnegie's academy, left, with Joe Carpenter, centre, and Scott Barrow

At grass-roots and junior level, there is much more to be positive about with 94 clubs affiliated with the Yorkshire RFU compared to 83 within Lancashire and 48 in Devon.

There are 120 junior clubs in Yorkshire, not including more than 150 schools and it is estimated that over 7,000 teenagers are playing the game at Under-13 to Under-18 level.

There is plenty of promising young talent coming through, but without an elite level team operating this side of the Pennines, is there still a pathway to the top for the cream of the Yorkshire crop?

According to Ben Lazenby, head of Yorkshire Carnegie’s academy, the answer is yes.

“The talent in the county is definitely there and for those who aspire to play in the Premiership, there is still a pathway – and an academy here to support them,” he said.

“The very best will still have the opportunity to rise to the top. However, we won’t be able to keep the very best players here if we don’t have a Premiership team. That pinnacle club is crucial. We don’t have the reference point for the young boys or that top-level first team for them aspire to play for.

“Ultimately, if lads want to play Premiership rugby or play internationally, the only way that they can do it is by leaving.”

The progression of the talented trio of Carnegie academy graduates Sam Wolstenholme (Wasps), Ollie Fox (Bath) and Joe Carpenter (Sale) into the Premiership during the summer of 2019 backs up Lazenby’s point.

The most gifted players will still make it to the country’s elite clubs and be recognised by England, they will just have to move out of the county in order to do so – even if they don’t really want to.

“Being a Yorkshire lad and having gone and watched first team games as a supporter from the age of eight or nine, I always wanted to play for the club,” revealed full-back Carpenter, an England under-18 international.

“Carnegie was my team and that loyalty was always there. My plan was to stay and try and get into the first team and gain experience of senior rugby that way. That was one of my goals, but it didn’t work out like that.  

“Because there is no Premiership team in Yorkshire, other clubs offer better opportunities. To achieve my goals, I had to move elsewhere.

“Joining Sale was a great opportunity go to somewhere in the north, that’s close, and join a Premiership club who are on the up.

“It’s been a great season for myself. I’ve learned so much and the fact that I’ve had European Cup experience in my first year with Sale definitely shows that moving here was the right option.”

The example of Carpenter is one that Lazenby is keen to highlight.

He was handed England under-16 and under-18 honours during his time with Carnegie and remains part of the international fold.

“It’s important to show what can be achieved by lads coming through the system here in Yorkshire,” Lazenby added.

“Joe Carpenter is just one example. He’s doing really well at Sale Sharks and has been training with the England under-20s squad.

“There is the opportunity to play your rugby at every level except the Premiership inside the county and it’s important that people recognise the opportunities that there are. That comes down to the picture that we portray.

“If the picture painted is too bleak then players will start looking outside the county at an even earlier age or turning to rugby league, and that will be really bad for the game here.

“If that does start happening then rugby union in Yorkshire will suffer for much longer.”

For Lazenby and his staff, the reality of the situation that they are now faced with as they attempt to nurture the county’s hottest prospects isn’t easy to accept, but he insists that doing what is right for each individual player takes top priority.

“All my team of staff are passionate about the game in Yorkshire. We want a strong game in Yorkshire but we also want the best for the lads who we are coaching,” the ex-Warrington Wolves academy coach said.

“It’s quite bittersweet seeing the very best players having to leave the county to go on and continue their development at the top level.

“When I came to the club five years ago the job was about finding and developing the best talent with the aim of keeping it here, but now my role has changed and part of it is actively searching for opportunities for players to go on and better themselves elsewhere.

“But the most important thing is what is best for the players, even if that means them having to go somewhere else to play at the top level.

“Ultimately, as academy coaches, we are tasked with developing the younger players for the RFU, for the Premiership and for England. That’s our job. It’s not just about Yorkshire.”

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