Nilsen hoping to help Leeds end prolonged search for silverware

Leeds Carnegie's Phil Nilsen. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Leeds Carnegie's Phil Nilsen. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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When Leeds Carnegie lifted their one and only major trophy, Phil Nilsen was a raw teenager just beginning to learn the dark arts of life as a hooker from two of the game’s more colourful characters.

With his grounding in place from the roguish England World Cup winner Mark ‘Ronnie’ Regan and Rob Rawlinson – who both lifted the Powergen Cup in 2005 – he has himself gone on to become one of the few to play more than 100 games for the Yorkshire club.

Nilsen admits, though, it is high time Leeds began looking to busy their sparse trophy cabinet.

While not as renowned as the silverware earned at Twickenham nearly a decade ago, the British & Irish Cup is a genuine possibility.

Given they have resided in the Championship for the last three seasons, those halcyon days of stunning Bath at HQ, Heineken Cup rugby and Premiership battles are beginning to fade.

However, they are in the mix for promotion and, in the B&I Cup, host Bristol today knowing a win – or even two bonus points – will secure them a place in the competition’s last eight for the first time and leave them just a couple of ties away from a significant final.

“The last piece of silverware I remember this club winning was that Powergen Cup,” Nilsen – who has current England coach Stuart Lancaster to thank for that positional switch – recalled to the Yorkshire Post.

“I was 19 and playing in Leeds Academy. It was around the time I’d moved from back-row to hooker. Lanny and Luffers (Mark Luffman) were in charge at the time and I remember them calling me into the office.

“They suggested it’d be a good idea if I had a go at hooker, saying it’d help progress my career and give me more longevity.

“I was okay with that, agreed to give it a go and it seems like it’s worked out. I’ve done pretty well and can’t complain. A good move.

“It was always good fun to train with those guys (Regan and Rawlinson). They both looked after me and gave me some words of wisdom.

“Some of those words of wisdom from Ronnie got me in trouble in one game in France when I ended up in a bit of a scrap – but generally they were pretty good.

“It’s been a while, though, since they won that Powergen Cup.

“Now it’d be nice to win any trophy. People have different perceptions of the B&I Cup but we’re in a good position and it’s a competition we want to succeed in.

“We’re looking forward to a big game against Bristol.”

Their West Country opponents, desperate to return to the top flight themselves, have already qualified for the last eight as they head into this afternoon’s final Pool Five fixture.

However, defeat would see Leeds usurp them from top spot and deny them a home quarter-final so there is plenty to play for on both sides.

They are neck-and-neck in the Championship, too, with third-placed Leeds only ahead of their rivals courtesy of a superior points difference with each just narrowly behind leaders London Welsh, last season’s relegated side.

Though Leeds are perhaps not classed as favourites out of the trio to earn that coveted return – second-placed Rotherham Titans are the other contenders – they are quietly building towards that aim.

There is nothing subtle about Bristol’s approach, however, given they have already recruited 
ex-Wales and British Lion scrum-half Dwayne Peel and Samoa prop Anthony Perenise on lucrative deals from 2014-15.

“They are obviously expecting to get into the Premiership making signings like that and it is a bit presumptuous,” admitted Nilsen.

“But that’s sport and if they want to do it that way then of course they can. I don’t know what the club’s like.

“They have the financial ability to do that and they must have convinced them they are going to be in the Premiership.

“We can only see what’s going on from the outside looking in but it’d be nice to make sure they don’t go up and we do.”

But first comes today’s meeting. The sides are level after two clashes so far this season.

Bristol defeated a young Leeds side 21-17 following a late try in October’s reverse B&I Cup fixture, but Carnegie did win down there in the Championship, taking a 
28-22 success in December.

Nilsen, 28, remembered: “It was a tough old game. I remember we went to Bristol last year, didn’t play and got beat so it was good to then be on the right side.

“We worked hard, took our chances when they came but were still disappointed at the end when we conceded that try to gift them a bonus point. We’ll take some of that hurt into this game.”

As part of their build-up towards this crucial fixture, Jimmy Lowes’s squad has spent time practising with sister club Leeds Rhinos earlier this week.

“It was good,” Nilsen added, “I’ve done a few of them before over the years and it’s always good to get involved with the Rhinos, for everyone to have a chat and get the chance to play with them.

“It’s a good little ice-breaker especially with us having quite a young squad; it can be quite intimidating for them walking around seeing some of the senior guys in their squad.

“But they are all good lads at Rhinos. We did a little league with their skills and defence but did some rucking and mauling too.

“Jamie Peacock’s face when Tommy McGee told him to set up a ruck was a picture.

“Personally, I’ve never really played league. When I grew up in Manchester it was all rugby union.

“I don’t think I’d cope getting back 10 metres each time. Give me a scrum or a maul over that any day.”

On-loan Wasps winger Jonah Holmes returns from injury today to play full-back and ex-England Sevens captain Rob Vickerman is also back to start on the wing.

Nilsen replaces the injured Joe Graham (back) at hooker, Ben Harris is recalled at loosehead prop, with second-row Matt Smith replacing Worcester loanee Harry Casson.

Chris Walker and Jarad Williams make way for Mike Myserscough and Richard Beck in the back-row.