Old sage McGeechan’s vision for the future

Sir Ian McGeehan
Sir Ian McGeehan
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When sceptics think of the newly-christened Yorkshire Carnegie, they envisage a club from a big city with a misguided sense of status.

They see a team long-since fallen from grace giving themselves greater importance than that to which they are entitled.

But the rebranding of Leeds to Yorkshire has never been about Carnegie proclaiming to be the county’s premier rugby union club.

It has never been the intention of the people involved to upset the good folk of Rotherham Titans and Doncaster Knights, in particular, by proclaiming to be their superiors.

For Gary Hetherington, Carnegie’s chief executive and the business brain behind the radical change, this move towards a county brand is the last chance for his club to become a sustainable and successful Premiership outfit.

He said in these pages five months ago that it is the county’s final shot, not to upset Carnegie’s rivals, but because Yorkshire has proven in the past that it has been unable to sustain a Premiership club.

For Sir Ian McGeechan, Carnegie’s executive chairman, the origins of the decision are far more romantic.

McGeechan’s vision is to be watching an England game in 10 years involving a young Yorkshireman who has been with Carnegie since the start; was identified at school by the club’s academy system, earned a scholarship through their development programme, represented the club throughout the age groups and then plays for them in a successful Premiership side.

If that player were to line up alongside a young man who went through the system at Rotherham, and played for the Titans in the top flight, then the more the merrier. Sport is about competition after all.

But ideally, the wise old sage that is McGeechan sees Yorkshire Carnegie as the blueprint for the future – certainly in this county.

At 67, and after nearly five decades in the game, he has seen enough models and schemes to know how best to develop and harness talented rugby players.

Put it this way, if a successful British and Irish Lions coach, a former international chief and a European Cup-winning club coach has not got the answers, then there is no hope.

And he found the answer on the opposite side of the world.

“I see it like a provincial system in New Zealand,” said McGeechan.

“Waikato are one of the strongest provinces at the moment; you’ve got Waikato Chiefs at the top, Waikato in the youth leagues, the clubs and the schools; the one thing that holds them altogether is that Waikato name and I think Yorkshire has a name that is just as powerful.

“Stuart Lancaster was talking to Premiership directors of rugby on Monday night and he is going through what I went through 30 years ago.

“He went to New Zealand in the summer, and like I was, he was blown away by it because it is so different.

“All the way through the system they talk about Waikato and we’ll talk about Yorkshire with Yorkshire Carnegie sat there at the top so that the best of the best should be going there and then to England. In Yorkshire we have got a huge potential – as big as a New Zealand province.

“What we have got the opportunity of doing is an integrated game where there is no separation – there is a strong relationship from young kids right through to a professional Premiership team that involves everybody.”

The aim of the Yorkshire Carnegie brand is to have satellite sites throughout the county – Hull, Sheffield and Scarborough for example – where players and coaches are developed.

McGeechan has already got his hands dirty at grass-roots level, putting the first building bricks in place. “I’ve been working very hard with the academy which has a Yorkshire responsibility anyway, to start the regional development programme,” continued McGeechan.

“They’re up and running and we’re now looking at 200 to 250 boys in an age group whereas 18 months ago we were looking at just 50, so we’ve already reached the numbers.

“Ultimately what we want to do is build the best programmes, the best network that gets those players through.

“We want a reservoir of 60 to 80 of the best talent at age 16 to 18 that comes through. At the moment we’re looking at 20 players so it’s about multiplying that.

“We know the talent’s there, we know there’s good work going on, it’s just about being able to keep developing that so that everybody benefits, we keep people in the game longer, we keep the base wider and we support all schools and clubs to have the best delivery.

“We want children who have aspirations of playing rugby union to know that if they’re ambitious there’s a pathway that will take them to an England jersey.

“If we get that, it has to be a reflection of the structures we put in place. We are already off first base in that respect.

“What the Yorkshire Carnegie name allows us to do is talk to the rugby union fraternity in different ways and have a different relationship with the county.

“We have an opportunity to genuinely produce a Yorkshire system that has the potential to result in a very strong, Premiership club at the top, with everybody else (other clubs) benefitting from a wide pool of talent.

“What would be great is to see a player play for England and us to see all the stages that that player went through; club, school, development programmes which actually took him to that point.

“That to me is an integrated system; where school masters and club coaches can feel they are part of that. Yorkshire is unique in having the ability to do that.”

The Yorkshire Carnegie project is being looked upon almost as a pilot scheme by the Rugby Football Union.

They ratified the name change and the understanding is from within the game’s corridors of power that they are intrigued to see how it works and develops.

Yet McGeechan is uncertain whether an integrated system can be replicated elsewhere.

For instance, could fierce, traditional rivals like Bath, Gloucester and Bristol come together under a West County banner?

He also feels this model stands more chance than the one attempted in Wales.

“They don’t have the county status like we have,” said McGeechan, who returned to Leeds two years ago to become Carnegie’s executive chairman.

“The thing I noticed when I lived away from the county for 20 odds years is that people say ‘I am from Yorkshire’, not from Leeds, Sheffield or Hull, so you have got an affinity to something and a name that is a lot stronger than an affinity to one town.

“We have the advantage, as last weekend showed with the Tour de France, of a natural Yorkshire identity and it is about making the most of that.

“Yorkshire rugby has sat there for 100-odd years and been one of the jerseys, as a union player that you wanted to wear.

“The talent is there – the schools, the clubs – now we are putting something in place that genuinely reflects the qualities we have.”