Arresting Decline

5th February 2020

The Yorkshire Carnegie rugby side are en route to being relegated from the Greene King IPA Championship – the second tier of the club hierarchy in England – at the end of this season. Prior to last Friday’s home match with Nottingham Rugby, they had registered only one point in the league table, having played 10 of their 22 scheduled fixtures. As the bottom side will go down – and the next-placed sides, Nottingham and the Bedford Bears, had 17 points – it is clear that their fate is close to being sealed.

The club’s difficulties began before the season started, with budget cut-backs, the move to part-time contracts, player and coaching departures and the resignation from the Board of the Executive President, Sir Ian McGeechan. As the mid-season approached, the union and league representatives of the parent club – Yorkshire Carnegie are based at Headingley, the home of the Leeds Rhinos RLFC – made public their various accusations and counter-accusations, providing further evidence that all was not well (if not in the state of Denmark, then at least in the LS6 postcode). Last month Joe Ford, who had taken on the player-coach role in August, became the latest to leave the club. Phil Davies, the former Wales international, has returned as Director of Rugby, having previously held the post for the 10 years to 2006.

Friday’s game followed the expected pattern. Nottingham had already made one clean break through the middle of the Yorkshire Carnegie defence before their next effort led to a try for the left-wing Jack Spittle after five minutes. Shortly afterwards, a set-play move from an attacking line-out – involving the swift movement of the ball from left to right and then a change in the point of attack with an inside pass – produced another huge gap in the Yorkshire Carnegie defence from which Spittle again profited. Worse was to follow for the home side a few minutes later, when the identical set-play generated an identical outcome. It has to be said that succumbing twice to the same (fairly routine) attacking move reflected poorly on the home side’s on-field organisation.

Yorkshire Carnegie did have some possession in the first half, but they found it much more difficult to generate any forward momentum; the Nottingham defence was accurate and aggressive. After the interval, Yorkshire Carnegie had the further disadvantage of being overwhelmed in the set scrum which, allied to Nottingham’s 100% return from their own line-out throws, made for a consistent flow of one-way traffic. The final score in the visitors’ favour was 62-10.

I’m not sure if there was a formal man-of-the-match award but, had there been, I assume it would have gone to Spittle, who ended the match with five tries. The most spectacular was his fourth, which began with a Yorkshire Carnegie penalty kick to touch which was tapped back into play by a Nottingham player. Spittle retrieved the ball behind his own try line and set off down his wing in front of the South Stand outmanoeuvring and then outpacing the Yorkshire Carnegie tacklers before touching down at the far end.

Over the years, I have seen some fine tries scored by some wonderful wing three-quarters sprinting down that touchline, beginning with Alan Smith and John Atkinson in the great Leeds rugby league team of the 1960s. The efforts of those two players were always accompanied by roars of encouragement from their (hugely biased) supporters crammed together on the adjacent terracing. By contrast, on this occasion, the backdrop to Spittle’s effort was an empty stand, as the spectating areas – catering for a few hundred, at most – were restricted to the comfortable padded seats in the North Stand or the lower terracing behind the posts at what used to be called the St Michael’s Lane end.

For those involved with the Yorkshire Carnegie club, there might seem to be little in the way of immediate consolation. However, one vignette did suggest otherwise. In the dying minutes of the match, when Nottingham were again pummelling at the home side’s try line, it looked as if one of their sturdy replacement forwards was about to barrel his way over for a score under the posts. He was halted by a brave last-ditch tackle by a couple of the young Yorkshire Carnegie defenders – I did not catch which ones – and the attack was repulsed. Their side may have conceded 10 tries, but they were doing their level best to prevent number 11. Their side might effectively be in the wrong league, but they were keeping going.

As with most sporting league structures, the rugby union club hierarchy is a flawed meritocracy. Whilst the differences in resources mean that it is not a “level playing field” – even within any given tier – there are rewards for success and penalties for failure. For Yorkshire Carnegie in its current state, it is the latter which is of potential concern – and not only for this season. Evidence suggests that there is the risk that a season of chronically poor results can lead to a process of decline that is cumulative and long-lasting.

To give one example, Manchester Rugby Club was in the Championship (then called the National Division 1) as recently as the 2008-09 season. It won only two of its 30 league fixtures in that campaign and none at all in the next two years, as it underwent a total of 5 consecutive relegations to the South Lancs/Cheshire league, the 7th tier in the system. At that point (in 2013-14) things were stabilised and, following a subsequent promotion and relegation, the club remains at the same level (in what is now the Lancashire/Cheshire 1 Division).

In the circumstances faced by clubs in such precipitate decline, there is no respect for tradition. Manchester is the oldest club in continual existence in England (having been established in 1860) and the provider of 60 international players in its history (including 9 in the post-war period).

The Yorkshire Carnegie club effectively dates from 1992 when the Headingley and Roundhay clubs were merged to form Leeds RUFC. (Its most recent re-branding dates from 2014). It has had some modest success, including Premiership status in 8 of the seasons between 2002 and 2011 and winning the RFU’s national knock-out trophy (the PowerGen Cup) in 2005. However, as I mentioned in Still An Ordinary Spectator, it is a cliched truism that, when one medium-sized rugby club merges with another medium-sized rugby club, the end result is a medium-sized rugby club.

I remember the Headingley and Roundhay clubs – formed in 1878 and 1924, respectively – as vibrant entities with close community links and established relationships with local schools and, especially, a fierce rivalry. But they are long gone. Let us hope that Phil Davies and his staff manage to arrest the decline of Yorkshire Carnegie by avoiding a Manchester-type free-fall and, in the years ahead, continuing to provide the city of Leeds with – at least – a medium-sized rugby union club.

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