The North Remembers: is there a future for union in the North?

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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.

wilkoNewcastle 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

14 thoughts on “The North Remembers: is there a future for union in the North?

  1. Good article Will.

    I remember during the 6 nations they discussed a draft system for the England U20 level. Perhaps that is the way forward, to spread players, maximizing their game time which not only will benefit their clubs but also the national side.

  2. The reason that the game is struggling in the north, is because the RFU don’t fund it as equally as they do down south. Rugby Union is absolutely crying out for exposure up here, but the RFU just don’t seem to want to part with any cash to advertise it. As alumni of Leeds Met I can guarantee that the city is full of students from all over the country that want to go watch a game of Union at the weekend, but the fact remains that the advertising campaigns, student ticket deals and other such things employed by Rugby League advertising steal the fans away. Most of the people I’ve asked (Northerns and Southerns) have never even heard of Leeds Carnegie, but lots of them had heard of Rhinos…. advertising and getting people to attend games is the key to success.

    The crazy thing is that all over Yorkshire there’s a strong grass roots setup with a ton of clubs, players and fans. The RFU need to give these people (youngsters especially) premiership teams to properly support that aren’t living in the fear of relegation. This means they need to invest some cash first, to later reap the rewards!

    1. Liam, why would the RFU do that? The English model is clear – the clubs drive the club game and want the RFU to keep their noses out. You can’t blame the RFU for, for example, the lack of decent marketing or rugby union quality in Leeds, surely? What’s happening with the North is also happening in Wales and Scotland – the big powers (clubs in the North of England context, Unions in the Northern Hemi context) are getting bigger and wealthier. As you say, without RFU intervention the game could die in the North. This is the perennial pickle – if it is left to “money talks” then you get a few concentrated pools of power. If you want a widely spread game then it cannot be achieved through marketing/money alone – you basically need someone to come in and take the long view and, in the short term, reduce maximum profits. The same thing can be said for the European cup.

  3. Sale’s decline started when they deserted Heywood Road. The atmosphere there was great, and I would regularly drive from t’other side of the Pennines to watch them. After my first visit to Edgeley Park, I swore never to return (though I did so on four occasions). I’ve not visited the sewage farm, yet.

    I feel that the marketing of Leeds Carnegie is a matter for the club; if the RFU have any money to spend on development in the North, it should be directed to the grass-roots, where, as Liam observes, there are a myriad of clubs, certainly in Yorkshire.

    1. Tony,

      I have been at Heywood road a few times in the past few months, both for training and for the academy game this week, it is by no standards a proffessional rugby club’s stadium. The ground is shocking, and the seating s?t?a?n?d?s? stand is tiny. We had to move out of Heywood road because it did reach the stadium capacity, one seated stand – come on, there was no chance that we could stay there, and with the ever increasing proffessionality of rugby, we would have to leave sometime. Salford City Stadium is a brilliant stadium, and there is a great atmosphere there, but due to Sale’s nightmare start with several hard (away) fixtures, we had a horrendous position during the season – but if you look at the results from after Christmas (when we had a large amount of home games) Sale finished 4th on points, I think that shows you something. Also, just going round Manchester, all you see are large billboards with Nani, Evra, RvP and other massive names in football in Manchester. The competition with City drives the advertising and publicity for football up. We need to get the word out about rugby in the north, Sale should start with proper ads around the place, and actually advertise the massive deal on season tickets! They need to sort this out, and get the word out. Sale have great potential, and if they build on there loyal fanbase for away fixtures, then the next few years could be really good for them.

      Charlie.

      1. Aye Charlie, I don’t doubt that there were commercial imperatives to move from Heywood Road. I liked the atmosphere in the Jim Birtles Stand (though, explaining the laws to my then girlfriend, when cheek-by-jowl with a hopelessly one-eyed fan who was balling at the ref, was a challenge!).

        The barmaids, in the clubhouse, were jewels too.

  4. I’m from Newcastle. It’s a mixture of underfunding and the southern teams snatching all our best talent away. Floody, wilko, parling, tait, noon all played at Newcastle. Not to mention the swath of young talent that has been enticed away by big pay cheques like Micky young to Leicester, Alex brown went to London Irish and they never even played him, Kieran Brooke’s was bought up by Leicester too before resigning. One of Leicesters’s young props Fraser balmain, I actually used to play with him at club level under 18 and he’s been bought by Leicester. Just seems money and trophies takes all the players away a little too easily from up here.

    1. James, as I’ve said above, that is just a smaller scale of what is happening all over the rugby world. You could change the names to Welsh ones and the teams to French ones in your email and you’d have the same thing. It’s going to kill the game outside of the main bastions of financial power. This football model, which France and England are embracing, will, I think, kill rugby because we do not have the breadth and depth of support that football has. The football can just about get by with a few moneybags clubs and a load of indebted hopefuls who can snatch the odd win. This will not work in rugby, not least because a very good team in rugby usually pummels a not so good team (in football the differences do not seem so pronounced). What’s happening inside England is also happening across Europe and even the SANZAR nations are starting to lose more players.

  5. And it’s a damn shame brighty. Breaks my heart it does because these regions all produce top class players. The super rugby model looks nicer by the day.

  6. I don’t think the future is looking rosey Up North for Union for all of the comments made so far, I for one though just do not understand the appeal of League.

    One of the main reasons I like Union is there is a job for everyone, players come in different shapes and sizes and the positions that they play in have a meaning and a influence on the game, this compared to League where all the players look like they have been mass produced by Hasbro and the position name seems to dictate where they stand on the pitch.

    Scrums are a joke, the five tackle system and wriggle back heel thing (technical term) break the flow of attractive, free flowing Rugby and when the ball is kicked its like watching a pack of terriers go after a bone, I attempted to watch the dirgefest which was The Challenge Cup Final Saturday and lasted about 5 minutes. The one thing that makes me smile is that eventhough it is firmly a Northern sport the teams and players always make the pilgrimage to Wembley for the final in The South.

    I think in terms of the Union/League divide it is clear that the game of Union is a far bigger brand globally, those who may disagree need only look at the comparative World Cups coming up in England thorough the Stadia used, type and amount of sponsorship and quality of teams qualifying, although Union may suffer in The North, League suffers more in The South without a decent top level team between Widnes and London and Union is far more popular across the country stretching from Cornwall to Newcastle, something League can only dream about.

  7. I don’t follow league, but isn’t the super league under pressure financially? There can’t be much money from the international fixtures either. The clubs have to operate within a pretty tight salary cap and I think we’ll see more and more poaching of young talent from league.

    A not too distant future of league being the community sport but union dominating the professional game doesn’t seem inconceivable. Whilst the northern union clubs are going to continue to struggle for a few years yet I think they do have a long term future.

    I would support England playing 1 game a year in the North (NZ, Aus and SA all move around, France don’t always play in Paris so why not?), yes I’m sure arranging to use, for example, Old Trafford won’t be easy; will come with a cost and those that have invested in the Twickers corporate boxes won’t be too happy. Maybe this is something they can do on the back of the RWC when England will play 1 pool game in Manchester and hopefully there will be a clamour for more.

    1. Yeah your right, League is in a dire situation financially, which is why I find it even crazier that Union isn’t trying to move in with its money and capture and bigger audience in the north. In Leeds, Newcastle and Sale we are ripe for the taking!

  8. Leeds and Manchester are still two hours from Newcastle. No prem rugby for me at all last season. Was surprised the Saxons played at Kingston park.

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