At Headingley this afternoon the Leeds Rhinos will arrive in their club gear not to play rugby league, at what used to be the traditional time for it, but to watch rugby union.
Top-flight professional union comes today to one of the bastions of the 13-a-side code, with Leeds Tykes' opening Zurich Premiership fixture against Bath, and the league supporters with their "100 per cent league; 0 per cent union" banners and stickers have no doubts that Gary Hetherington is the man to blame. One even ran on to the field, stark naked, when the Tykes' pre-season friendly against Llanelli shared the stage with the Super League match against Bradford. Rugby union, his message ran, could kiss the part of his anatomy indicated by a large, painted-on arrow. A bit of a selling job still to be done there.
"I fully understand people's apprehension," says Hetherington, the chief executive of both clubs. "But I believe it's based on a misguided emotion. There has been a perception that rugby union here is funded by rugby league, and that is 100 per cent wrong. Leeds Tykes have to be self-supporting."
With nearly £2 million coming in from the Zurich Premiership's television deal and more than meeting their £1.8m wage bill, the Tykes' main expense is covered. The two clubs share marketing departments, medical and training facilities – plus the time and energy of staff like Hetherington himself. "We have 100 full-time staff here," he says. "That's a lot more than Castleford or Gloucester, and there simply wouldn't be that many if we were only playing one sport."
The two clubs came to be bedfellows through accident rather than any grand design. "In 1996, the rugby league club was £5m in debt and the bank was saying there was no more money," explains Hetherington. The club were desperate to find a buyer and were going to move to Leeds United and sell Headingley for development."
At the same time that Hetherington, the increasingly frustrated founder of the Sheffield Eagles, was discussing a rescue bid, another interested party, the millionaire property developer Paul Caddick, was negotiating a five-year deal to use the venue for the newly-merged Roundhay and Headingley rugby union clubs.
"They were cash-rich from the sale of the Kirkstall ground, and when we met we decided that the two clubs could work together. We had rugby league and cricket in the summer and nothing in the winter." Thus, the union cuckoo was welcomed into the nest and, three years ago, the Rhinos bought a controlling interest and rebranded them as the Tykes.
Hetherington firmly believes this is the way forward for both. "I believe we can help each other to achieve success in both codes. There has to be a willingness on both sides to embrace good ideas. I've just come back from a two-day seminar for Zurich Premiership clubs in Oxford and I learnt a lot about their culture and their business philosophy. Soccer is the major threat to all other sports in this country. It threatens to swallow up all the media coverage and corporate spend."
A joint approach to that challenge only works if the Tykes are up among the big boys. Had that not been achieved this season, in fact, Hetherington would have been quite prepared to pull the plug.
"If we had not achieved promotion, there would not be professional rugby union in Leeds any more," Hetherington says. "We have two challenges now. One is to develop a team that can be competitive; the second is to develop an audience. If either one of those fails, the future of professional rugby union in Leeds has got a question mark against it. That's not a threat, just an observation."
The first part of that challenge will, the Tykes hope, be addressed by signings like the South African, Braam van Straaten, who will arrive at Headingley in December, while the second does not depend, Hetherington believes, on converting league fans.
"We don't really expect to attract a lot of rugby league fans. We are looking for a new, countywide audience. It's hard to predict crowds, but I think we'll be looking at between 3,000 and 8,000, depending on the opposition and the weather."
Success will be keeping their place at the trough. "If we do that [director of rugby] Phil Davies will deserve most of the credit," says Hetherington. "He's the spine of the club. There's a terrific spirit and determination to do well, but anything above 11th place will be a bonus."Reuse content