Interview: Kiwi wearing White Rose badge with pride

Yorkshire Carnegie head coach Gary Mercer.
Yorkshire Carnegie head coach Gary Mercer.
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Yorkshire Carnegie, Leeds Tykes, or how ever they have been known, have had a chequered history of turning rugby league players into head coaches.

Daryl Powell was parachuted in from a position as match-day manager in a bid to save the then-Tykes from relegation in 2006. He could not manage it, and is now back in his natural habitat of the 13-man game, excelling.

James Lowes took charge a year ago of a young Leeds Carnegie team and maintained their status as promotion challengers with a brand of enterprising rugby that was easy on the eye, if a little too generous in defence.

It was a promising year, but when rugby league came calling, this time in the form of a Bradford Bulls organisation he is smitten with no matter their travails, Lowes fled Carnegie so fast it left the union outfit reeling and without a Plan B.

It took them nine weeks to appoint a successor, and once again a side forever in the shadow of their Leeds Rhinos brothers turned to a man steeped in rugby league.

Yet, in Gary Mercer, they might finally have found a man intent on staying the course in union.

Where Lowes’s union education had been a handful of months pitching in with training sessions across the Kirkstall rugby paddock the two sides share, Mercer’s time in the 15-man classroom has been a decade long.

Encouragingly for Carnegie fans who are being asked to be patient as they go through another face change, Mercer appreciates that he still has much learning to do.

“I’m certainly not the finished article. Coaches in the Premiership and the Championship will tell you they are still learning,” said Mercer, the 48-year-old former New Zealand rugby league international, who has spent the last 10 years ensconced in the Scottish RFU’s coaching set-up.

“There’s a lot to rugby union, you really have to know what you’re talking about, especially at this club because these guys know rugby.

“I knew I had to be well-versed if I was to take a role anywhere.

“I’ve learnt the code of rugby union, it was a good apprenticeship and I’ve really enjoyed it. I find it a very interesting game and I’m really excited about getting started with Yorkshire Carnegie.

“I didn’t expect this to come up, it’s been surreal in a way because it’s my old club from the league side and it’s fantastic to be back.

“As soon as I knew James had moved on, the first port of call was to drop my cv in and see how I got on. And it’s worked.”

The Carnegie job is one Mercer has coveted since he first stepped into union 10 years ago. He is indebted to the Scottish RFU for the roles he was given and the time he was afforded to develop his understanding of the game.

He knows all that would be for nothing if he was to repeat the club’s history and make his time in a union top job a fleeting one. Where Lowes was playing catch-up in terms of knowledge, Mercer is behind the eight-ball when it comes to an intrinsic knowledge of his squad.

The Yorkshire Carnegie era begins with an away game at experienced Championship campaigners Cornish Pirates tomorrow, just six days after Mercer started work.

“I’m probably playing a bit of catch-up with regard to knowing the boys, that’s the big one,” he said. “I’ve got to come in and bed myself in for the next couple of weeks and get a good visual on the boys.

“I don’t know how they perform, what they’re strong at, and that will take a little while before I’m thinking these are my XV.

“But I’m going to be surrounded by some good people. Tommy McGee has done a fantastic job and I know Tommy through Scotland A. Sir Ian McGeechan is here and then there’s Chris Gibson on the contract side of things. It’s a great academy structure as well.

“It’s a massive baptism, but an exciting one, and I know I’m ready.

“It’s good to have somebody of Tommy’s experience who knows the players and can help guide me and make decisions.”

The squad Mercer inherits is one he describes as ‘sublime’. In the last two years, they have lost in the promotion play-off semi-final by an aggregate score of less than a try.

Some of theirs stars of the last two campaigns have beaten them to the Premiership by signing with established top-flight clubs – last season’s captain Jacob Rowan the most notable one.

Mercer will be involved in recruitment, once he has given the current crop he is still familiarising himself with, time to impress.

Given the short time-frame he has to shape his squad, he says changes at first will be minimal.

But his overall view of how the new Carnegie can be successful this season is a modification of the more gung-ho approach of the last regime.

“It’s about throwing a few little things in there, like working on our defence, working on our discipline, what we’re doing out of the backfield, making sure we’re playing in the right areas etc,” he said.

“And I don’t mean that to say stop being entertaining, I mean it in terms of being assertive, that we’ve not got basketball scorelines.

“We know we can score tries – the concern is that we conceded too many, 72 last year, and we need to break that down.

“We can’t have the mentality of if they score five, we score six. That’s got to go. The boys are aware of it, that’s the first thing I’ve really nailed into them this week.”

During that first week, the memories came flooding back for a man who spent five years as a Leeds Rhinos player, sandwiched in between spells at Halifax, Bradford and Warrington.

Asked for the highlight of his time with Leeds, Mercer says the entire five years was a constant high.

In order to make new memories, it is not just Leeds he needs to convince.

The new Carnegie sport the name of Yorkshire, a rebrand aimed at creating an integrated county-wide system that produces players from school level through to the first team and ultimately results in a sustainable Premiership force.

“I like to think it’s a bigger head coaching role because the name’s Yorkshire now,” added Mercer.

“This is not Leeds Tykes, this is not Leeds Carnegie, this is Yorkshire Carnegie. It’s a new time, it’s a new era. It’s important that when we do wear that badge we wear it with pride.

“We’re covering a massive area and it’s important we attract fans outside of Leeds, out in the north and east and so forth, who come and watch Carnegie play.

“My role, and that of Ian McGeechan, is trying to get Yorkshire Carnegie up to a level of the Rhinos, to a level where people see Rhinos picking up 16,000 fans and we’ve got 8,000-9,000 fans, and then obviously we’re in the Premiership.

“I need as a head coach to get out into the Yorkshire community. If that means getting over to Whitby to do a session then that’s what I’ll do.

“It’s surreal to be back here. One minute I’m in Scotland, the next I’m stood on the sidelines with a rugby union icon in Sir Ian McGeechan as head coach of Yorkshire Carengie.

“I’m very proud.”