Doncaster Knights v Yorkshire Carnegie – Survival priority before Chris Stirling sets sights on the elite

World Cup winner:  Jonny Wilkinson goes past Mike Shelley in the Leeds Tykes v Newcastle Falcons match, which attracted a record Headingley crowd 14 years ago.
World Cup winner: Jonny Wilkinson goes past Mike Shelley in the Leeds Tykes v Newcastle Falcons match, which attracted a record Headingley crowd 14 years ago.
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LAST week marked an anniversary of Yorkshire Carnegie’s biggest home crowd in the club’s history.

It was 14 years ago that Leeds Tykes, as they were then known, attracted a record attendance of 14,293 to Headingley.

BIG PLANS: Carnegie director of rugby, Chris Stirling

BIG PLANS: Carnegie director of rugby, Chris Stirling

This was mainly down to a certain Jonny Wilkinson, who had won the World Cup for England just 13 months previously and who came off the bench to nudge Newcastle Falcons to a 15-11 Premiership victory.

Carnegie, of course, are now barely recognisable from the side of that day and not just in name and personnel, which included a World Cup winner of their own in the shape of Mark Regan along with British Lion Tim Stimpson and Springbok Andre Snyman.

They are in the Championship and, not only that, ahead of today’s crucial visit to Doncaster Knights sit bottom with just one win from nine league fixtures.

Clearly it is not the start to life as the club’s director of rugby that Chris Stirling had envisaged.

The goal is obviously to climb up the table and finish as high as possible this season before looking at next. There’ll be more recruitment in the summer and those we’ve signed are through to 2020.

Chris Stirling

The respected Kiwi initially arrived in March from Super Rugby side The Hurricanes before taking full control at the end of last term to implement his plan that he hopes will eventually see Carnegie promoted back into the elite.

That will not happen this season; staving off what would be an utterly ruinous relegation is, instead, the surprise aim.

However, Stirling’s confidence and belief is undimmed and, though they cannot target promotion until 2019-20, he feels the blocks have been put in place with a raft of recent signings.

The former Cornish Pirates chief, who has worked with the All Blacks, has made 10 in total and it is no coincidence the club have won five of their Championship Cup games since a timely break from the league at the end of October.

“I suppose you could say it’s the start of a new season for us,” said Stirling as his side attempt to lift from 12th with ninth-placed Doncaster facing problems of their own, having lost their last four games and sitting just 10 points in front of Carnegie.

“We’ve got a greatly strengthened squad, new players who’ve bedded in during the Championship Cup, which has given us some real steel. Now we’ve not only got a very strong starting line-up, but also a very, very strong bench, which, in the modern game, is crucial.

“So now it’s time to perform and get some results in the Championship.

“The goal is obviously to climb up the table and finish as high as possible this season before looking at next. There’ll be more recruitment in the summer and those we’ve signed are through to 2020.

“We know there’s a lot of work to do, but as long as we control what we can control and put ourselves in a good space it (promotion) is definitely realistic.”

Stirling is equally confident of one day seeing Headingley attracting a five-figure crowd again.

That crowd in 2004 was almost double their previous best and this term Carnegie have averaged just 1,400, illustrating the sheer size of the task ahead.

But he insisted: “Yes, of course it can be achieved. It’s not going to be easy.

“What will success look like? A near full Emerald Headingley stadium watching Yorkshire Carnegie play. If we can achieve that we know we’ve played some good rugby, we know we’re getting results and moving in the right direction.

“That’s how I’ll gauge success; seeing the desire for the Yorkshire public to come and watch us.”

All of which makes today’s game of utmost importance. There are five sides fearing the drop as the competition approaches the halfway mark, but Carnegie need impetus now.

Granted they have beaten Doncaster twice already in the Cup and their rivals hit a new low when knocked out of the competition in their last outing, a dismal 19-14 home loss to an under-strength Nottingham.

But Stirling appreciates where Clive Griffiths’s side will be dangerous. “Their pack and their ability to carry the ball. They’re big, strong and we’ve got to meet that by trying to stop them going forward,” he said.

“If we allow them to get any momentum in their carry we will have a hard day at the office. Then, depending on selections, they’ve a very exciting outside back trio and if we’re inaccurate with our kicking game they’ll run it back at us and take advantage.

“They’re a strong outfit right across so it’ll be a massive challenge. They’ll be massively up for it and it’s the local derby, too.

“We’ve played them twice before – I know it was in the Cup – but both clubs put out strong teams with a view of what was coming on December 29.

“Castle Park is a difficult place to go and Yorkshire Carnegie don’t win there too often so to get one in the Cup was nice. We’d certainly like another.”