The Rugby World Cup, the third biggest sporting tournament on the planet, is coming to Yorkshire. Two matches will be played here, there’ll be a huge fanzone in Leeds for people to watch the rest of the games on big screens, and hopes are high it’ll have an impact on rugby union across the county – a massive impact, according to one doyen of the code.
‘Having been born and brought up in Leeds, to see a World Cup in the area is very special,’ says Sir Ian McGeechan, Executive Chairman of Yorkshire Carnegie, the county’s top rugby union side. ‘The impact will be massive. We had the trophy here last week and to see the kids and the buzz of people taking photographs and watching the training was very positive.
‘Both games are sold out, and this is the third biggest sporting competition in the world coming to our doorstep, so it’s exciting, and the legacy is important, making sure we make the most of it and get the kids excited about what they can see and what they can become part of.’
Oh yes, the legacy. It’s not going to be easy. If you haven’t followed the tale of rugby union in Yorkshire over the past few years, it’s been up and down, literally. Ian is keen to point out that there are over 120 rugby union clubs in the county, but the top side, Yorkshire Carnegie, hasn’t exactly sparkled. Previously called Leeds RUFC, then Leeds Tykes, then Leeds Carnegie, they became Yorkshire Carnegie in 2014, and they’ve been promoted to and relegated from the Premiership several times over the past decade. Now in the Championship, the second tier of rugby, they play their games at Headingley Stadium, a ground they share with rugby league side Leeds Rhinos, who are owned by the same business group. A set-up that brings several benefits.
Ian says that the fact the two codes work together means they can ‘feed off each other’, a far cry from the separatist ways of the past. ‘I think we’ve now got, within our organisation, the respect for both sports that maybe sometimes hasn’t been there in the past, which is very important because both sports can learn from each other.’
Another development which Ian is hoping will pay dividends is the fact that he rebranded the club from Leeds Carnegie to Yorkshire Carnegie last year, in the hope of attracting fans from not just the city but across the whole county.
‘I’d spoken to a business group at Canary Wharf,’ he explains, ‘And there were lots of people from the county there. They all said they were from Yorkshire; they didn’t say they were from Leeds or Sheffield or Hull or Harrogate. Everybody naturally said they’re from Yorkshire. I think when we looking at what you can represent, we sometimes underestimate the impact of the name and the association.’
When making the decision to rename the club, Ian had been influenced by the success of the Yorkshire brand in the build-up to the Tour de France, as well as the fact Yorkshire is a well-established name within the cricketing world. What he’d like to see is Yorkshire developing a similar reputation in the rugby union world – to do that he believes he needs to get the name appearing near the top of the Premiership.
That’s a big step. To get not just promoted, but also stay in the Premiership and compete with the top sides of the Premiership is a huge ask, but it’s not a delusional one. A huge boost comes in the form of rugby league stalwart Gary Sinfield, who’s switching codes to join Carnegie in October. Also, the game’s governing body, the RFU recently audited the academy and rated it highly, which is a good sign for the future.
‘We’re trying very hard at the moment to really coordinate all the talent development,’ says Ian. ‘We’ve an academy that covers the whole county, and we really have developed a stronger initiative and a stronger structure to make sure that we can impact on the whole county.
‘We’ve split it into six satellite areas where we develop youngsters, or help develop youngsters through clubs and schools, from the age of 13 upwards, with obviously the best ones then coming through with the aim of playing Premiership rugby under the Yorkshire name.’
It’s an endeavour which began under the stewardship of Stuart Lancaster, who played for Leeds, took charge of the academy then became the club’s manager, before becoming Head Coach of England. Ian says he’s simply trying to take that ‘two or three steps further’, taking inspiration from abroad.
‘You see what a New Zealand province looks like in rugby union and how effective it is,’ he explains, ‘Where clubs and schools and everything all come together under one name.
‘If we get it right then we should be looking at crowds of between 8,000 and 10,000, and if we’re successful and become a top six Premiership side, I could see us going well over the 12,000 or 13,000 mark. It isn’t that rugby union isn’t around, it’s just making sure it’s the top quality, and I think the knock-on effect would be huge. As I say, it is a rugby union county.’
It sounds like a potential legacy to us.
What’s going on?
The Rugby World Cup 2015 will take place between 18th September and 31st October. Leeds will be hosting two games at Elland Road:
Italy vs Canada
Saturday 26th September at 2.30pm
Scotland vs USA
Sunday 27th September at 2.30pm
There will also be a fanzone at Millennium Square in Leeds which will be open from 18th to 27th September, 1st to 7th October, and on 10th October. The fun starts at 10am each day and draws to a close at either 7pm, 8pm or 10pm, depending on the timing of games. Up to 5,000 fans will be able to enter the fanzone (it’s free) to watch the games live on big screens, as well as enjoy food, drinks and entertainment. There will also be an activity area in the fanzone for tag rugby, dance, football and cultural activities.