Following on from the recent comments from ex-England and Sale winger, Mark Cueto, about his decision to embark on one more year with his club, the importance of success this season cannot be understated. Amid the preparations, squads announcements, and ticket purchasing for the upcoming Aviva Premiership season, there are two clubs who will be feeling the pressure mounting on their already sagging shoulders.
Last year, Sale scraped through a gruelling battle to avoid relegation; a battle that, arguably, was won largely because of the points deduction placed upon eventual victims, London Welsh. Despite the initial relief of the Sale fan, the 2012-13 season was one of ominous foreboding. Rugby union in the north has been struggling for some time now, and the divide between north and south seems to grow larger by the year. How long does it seem since Jason Robinson et al were tearing up the Twickenham turf at the 2006 final?
This season, northern representation will be bolstered by the return of the Newcastle Falcons to the top flight. After last year’s successful season – which saw them waltz through the RFU Championship – the faithful of Kingston Park will be hoping that the Falcons can become a bastion of union in the north. For some teams, such as the Northampton Saints team that saw relegation for the 2007-2008 season, their time in the second tier of English rugby provided them with the springboard needed to reconfirm their place in the top flight; it would seem there is nothing like relegation to clear the cobwebs.
It is not always a fairytale return though. Leeds Carnegie spent four years bouncing between the Premiership and the Championship, failing to establish any semblance of continuity between seasons. Last season saw them finish fourth in the Championship, and it is likely to be many years before we see them competing for a Premiership spot again.
But what is the reason behind the north’s continuous struggle to make an impact on a national level?
The Culture in the North
Despite what some of you south of the Watford Gap might think, there is culture in the north. Unfortunately, much of that culture is detrimental to the survival of union. Before I get accused of being a class snob, I am not insinuating that there is some kind of moral indifference to the game itself, or that people in the north see union as a game for posh southern boys. Having spent my university years in Lancashire, I can safely confirm that rugby union at club level is extremely popular, and the universities of the north maintain a healthy standard of the game and its ethos.
The problem is that there are two other sports in the North that are decidedly more popular; football, and rugby league. And the reason they are more popular is that they are unquestionably more successful. The north is mad for football. Chasing hot on its heels is rugby league. Every major town or city in the north is a stronghold of the game; and it makes the outposts of Newcastle and Sale look decidedly overwhelmed.
Stadia and Scheduling
You need only look at the scheduling for the Rugby World Cup in 2015 to know how the RFU sees the prospect of hosting games in the north. Despite the negativity that goes with such an attitude, their reasons for doing so are – annoyingly – justifiable, if not understandable. If the cradle of rugby union was in the North, then the RFU could be forgiven taking a few games away from the financial guarantee of the south. As it stands, the north is decidedly indifferent when it comes to union; you need only look at Sale and Newcastle’s receding numbers of fans to establish that fact.
Another worrying element is stadia. Newcastle can be forgiven to sticking with Kingston Park, though their reasons for doing so would make most financial investors nervous. They are currently averaging an attendance of 4,000; the lowest by far in the Aviva Premiership. Considering that Kingston Park has the capacity to host 10,200, that is a massive deficit.
Sale Sharks might not be suffering from the same attendance issues as Newcastle, but they undoubtedly face demons of their own. They have arguably struggled to create a new sense of identity since moving away from Edgeley Park; their record at the new Salford City Stadium is far from formidable. Although the players must take the brunt of the criticism laid at the club’s doorstep, the fact remains that Edgeley Park was a difficult place to play away in. Salford City Stadium cannot compete with that sense of history. At a time when rugby union in the north desperately needs to be dragging in new fans and spectators, this was hardly the time for Sale to put itself through an identity change.
The Departure of the Stars
The Aviva Premiership boasts some of the biggest and best names in world rugby. From the Tuilagi brothers of Leicester Tigers, to the head tilting Owen Farrell of Saracens and the searing pace of Christian Wade at London Wasps; these are the faces and talents that attract spectators and the media. And who can overlook the importance of George North’s arrival at Northampton Saints?
Unfortunately, while the big boys in the south have been signing new, exciting, and well known talents, the news up north has been decidedly quiet over the past few seasons. And even more worryingly, on the rare occasion that a signing has generated a fair amount of buzz, the product has rarely lived up to the expectation.
Newcastle can be credited as producing the most iconic English rugby player of all time; Jonny Wilkinson. But despite his long years of service to the club, the King in the North’s departure in 2009 – alongside the departure of prolific players such as Mathew Tait and Jamie Noon (2008 and 2010 respectively) – heralded the eventual downfall of the Falcons. A club like Newcastle can scarcely afford to lose such a tidal wave of big names in such a short space of time.
A similar, though less severe, scenario was also acted out across the Pennines at Sale. Jason Robinson’s departure would signal a migration of big names southwards. The loss of such a prolific try scorer, alongside the departure of points-machine Charlie Hodgson, was bound to leave the Sharks reeling for a number of years, especially considering their notorious lack of strength in depth.
The long and short of it is, despite the signings of big names such as Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray (who has duly departed after a single season), the north is lacking the X-Factor of the south. There are few players north of Leicester who would set your socks on fire, and those that used to have that power are beginning to run out of gas. You need only look at the British and Irish Lions squad to see how underrepresented the north was. The north remembers a time when its stars could punish even the most stalwart defence. Now, unless things change, they are set to fight it out to avoid the shame of relegation.
By Will Taylor
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images