Saracens v Leeds Carnegie: Key’s exit frees up funds to spend on players

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Premiership: Money saved from the departure of director of rugby Andy Key will be used in Leeds Carnegie’s attempt to keep their top players at the club.

Captain Marco Wentzel and England flanker Hendre Fourie are both wanted by Gloucester, with the former out of contract at the end of the season and yet to commit his future to the Headingley club.

Chief executive Gary Hetherington last night explained that Key’s dismissal was not done as a cost-cutting measure, more as a re-allocation of expenditure given that up to 15 players will be out of contract at the end of the season.

The club have a £4.5m rugby budget, of which around £3m is spent on players. That is £1m short of the majority of their Premiership rivals and the club’s position at the foot of the table reflects how much of a factor money is in the sport.

Hetherington said the board were planning to dispense with the director of rugby role at the end of the season, and had made a ‘judgment call’ to hasten that change in what the club is describing as a ‘restructure’.

He said: “We are obviously mindful of the uncertainty of next season, whether we will be in the Premiership or the Championship, and have been looking at how we want to be structured going forward and part of that debate was to dispense with the role of the director of rugby, and those responsibilities to be taken up by myself and Chris Gibson (rugby operations manager).

“The timing of it was the next step, and we decided that now would be the time to make it. That means the coaching department will have to absorb the coaching duties of Andy Key.

“It is part of a restructure. One of the reasons it’s been done now, is we need to be looking at players for next year.

“We’ve put in a ‘Rolls Royce’ backroom staff, it compares favourably in numbers and quality with the rest of the division.

“We have a £4.5m rugby budget, with an expensive coaching staff. If you spend your money on staff you’re inevitably not going to be able to spend as much on players.

“If that reduces, you can then re-allocate your resource. Our belief is we are top heavy in the coaching department.”

Negotiations with Wentzel have been ongoing since the new year, and while Fourie signed a two-year deal last summer, Leeds’s precarious predicament allied to his growing stature make him a sought-after player.

Key – who was named the Premiership’s top rugby director last year and only signed a contract extension himself in the autumn – had been heavily involved in contract talks with current and potential players before being informed on Wednesday night that his services were no longer required.

He joined the club alongside head coach Neil Back in June 2008 and immediately oversaw a return to the Premiership. Survival was the one and only goal last season and was achieved courtesy of a remarkable transformation in the second half of the campaign.

Sights were set much higher this term, but after a calamitous start to the season that included nine straight league defeats, there were embryonic signs of a second great escape in the making, with points picked up in their last three games – making the timing of the dismissal somewhat baffling.

Had a coaching change been made at the end of November when Leeds were thrashed at Harlequins, it might have been understandable. But with performances and results having picked up since that watershed moment – four wins in nine including a first Premiership win – it appeared buoyant Leeds were on the mend.

Hetherington said after the Quins defeat that the club were not partial to making knee-jerk reactions, and stood by that yesterday.

“With nine games to go, we need wins,” he said. “We didn’t want a knee-jerk change, and that’s what it would have been after Harlequins; we had to be very definitive about what structure we want in place going forward.

“In terms of team performance, will this have a detrimental affect? I think with the quality of staff we’ve got the answer is no. We’ll miss Andy’s enthusiasm, his professionalism and everything about him.

“But this next nine games needs a single-minded focus, and Neil Back has now got that sole responsibility and I think he will thrive on it.”

Back was not involved in the decision-making process of Key’s dismissal and said he had been as shocked as anyone about the change. The two had dovetailed well since arriving in Yorkshire and though he has a strong backroom staff to lean on and was trying to keep the focus on tomorrow’s trip to Saracens, there is no question Back will miss his running mate.

“Andy will still be a part of what we’re doing,. Just because he’s not continuing this year, whatever we achieve he will be a part of,” he said. “We always knew at the start of the journey there’d be changes. No one is guaranteed that they’re going to be here for that journey. What does it do for morale? We’ll see.”