Time for Carnegie to deliver when it matters

Yorkshire Carnegie's Phil Nilsen.  Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Yorkshire Carnegie's Phil Nilsen. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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The lack of stability in the head coaching position at Yorkshire Carnegie this season, while impacting on the direction of the team, has also created a powerful leadership group within the players.

In the nine weeks between James Lowes’s departure and the appointment of Gary Mercer, senior players had to stand up during the pre-season and take on greater roles.

Shedding that added responsibility proved difficult when Mercer took charge on the eve of a season they had helped prepare for.

It wasn’t so much player-power that brought a swift end to Mercer’s reign, but the disconnect between the playing staff and the new head coach was obvious as Carnegie suffered a wretched start to the campaign.

Now with Tommy McGee in charge – a man most have played with and worked with over the last few years – the club are returning with conviction to a more unified state.

Every player seems happy to be working under McGee; a coach they respect, a man they like.

Phil Nilsen, the hooker, said this week that he hopes McGee gets the job he currently occupies for the foreseeable future, on a full-time basis.

“Tommy is a great guy and really good at managing the players,” said Nilsen.

“He’s good at getting the best out of you and he knew what we needed to do to get us playing how we know we can.”

The 35-year-old former Scotland A prop has certainly had an impact, steering Carnegie to three successive wins in the British and Irish Cup, with the 
28-22 win at Rotherham Titans last week the most notable of those.

McGee has told his players to go back to the attacking instincts that Mercer so desperately wanted to curb.

He has given them license to thrill, provided they do not betray the defensive platforms he – and to an extent Mercer – have attempted to build over the last two years.

Indeed, it was that defensive structure and resolve that won them last week’s White Rose derby.

But McGee’s influence only extends to the training field and the dressing room.

It is now over to the players to prove they do indeed want him to stay on as head coach, and that they want to climb the Championship table.

The players are the King-makers.

Their deeds on the pitch make or break a coach’s reputation.

Speaking this week, Nilsen –who with 145 appearances to his name has played more games for the club than anyone currently at Carnegie – inadvertently revealed the true extent of player influence.

“The way the game works these days the players always have a say and coaches don’t want to make players do what they don’t want to do,” he said.

Nilsen is not necessarily saying players have all the power.

What he is referencing is the nature of the open review system at Carnegie and most clubs these days, whereby players are encouraged to speak up and challenge the coaches if they think it will help the team.

To that end, a strong team needs a strong leader.

And the strength of McGee as a head coach will be measured over the next month, more than it ever was in the last three weeks of B&I Cup action.

Yorkshire begin the next tranche of Championship fixtures with a difficult trip to Jersey today, after which, they face the top three teams in the league; London Scottish and Bristol away in January, after hosting Worcester at Headingley next Saturday.

They are a daunting block of fixtures for a team rebuilding morale and momentum after winning just two of their first eight league fixtures.

“As players we were frustrated that we weren’t playing to our potential,” said Nilsen, when reflecting on what wrong under Mercer.

“We were always quite tight as a group, we never lost that, we just lacked a bit of confidence.

“But we’ve rediscovered that now by building on the little things and concentrating on the positives.

“It was important to get a bit of momentum and confidence 
coming out of the British & Irish Cup.

“We played the strongest sides we could each time and rebuilt that confidence.

“And now we’ve got our performance levels back after a good run, we have now got to put that into the league form.

“We have got to start getting results.

“It’s not a case of do or die yet but if we want to get into that top four – which is still within reach – then we have got to start getting results quickly.”

Nilsen starts today in the front row after a try-scoring performance from the bench at Clifton Lane last week.

He joins England Under-20 prop Paul Hill as one of five changes made by McGee.

“The players are enjoying their rugby and that is important,” said the head coach, who has also recalled Rob Vickerman, Richard Beck and Harry Casson.

“We have pretty much got the same team we have played in recent weeks so there is some continuity within the group, partly due to a number of injuries we are carrying and partly because we wanted to use the Cup as a springboard into three very tough games in the Championship around Christmas and new year.”