The decline of northern civilisation

Rugby union north of Leicester is struggling. Simon Turnbull finds out why – and asks what needs to be done to help an ailing region

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The Independent Online

It is English rugby union's version of climate change or continental drift. Things have been slowly getting grim up north for some time now, but the outlook has never been quite so bleak. In 25 seasons of league rugby union in England, there has always been a northern club in the top tier. This term Sale are the sole representatives and their struggle to get off the blocks – with five defeats out of five prior to the visit of Leicester last night – has raised the prospect of the Premiership map being drastically redrawn, virtually cutting the country in half.

The scenario might be more than a tad premature, with six months of the 2012-13 Premiership season remaining, and with Newcastle looking likely to bounce straight back up from the Championship, but if you were to take Sale off the present Premiership chart the most northerly outpost would be Welford Road, Leicester.

"That is quite a frightening thought," says Alan Tait. "It has become very difficult for the clubs in the north. It's become a battle."

Tait should know. The former Scotland and Lions centre of excellence spent a season and a half battling to keep the Premiership flag flying at Kingston Park as head coach of Newcastle. The tide of departing stars, declining attendances and a slashed budget proved too great to overcome.

The Falcons clung on to the top perch by a point at the end of the 2010-11 season, Tait's first season in charge. Last season they fell a point short, dropping into the Championship and parting company with Tait along the way.

Now under the direction of Dean Richards, and with increased backing from local businessman Semore Kurdi, the Tyneside club are laying the foundations for a Premiership comeback, steamrollering their rivals in the Championship. Attendances, however, have dropped to 4,500 – 3,000 down on five years ago, when Toby Flood, Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Burke were in the Falcons' nest.

"It is tough," says Tait, a member of the star-encrusted Newcastle side that won the inaugural Premiership title under Rob Andrew, with help from the financial clout of Sir John Hall, back in 1998. "When I first came back to Newcastle as a coach we had already lost some good players and it kept happening. We just became a kind of a feeder club for the bigger clubs.

"I set out to build a team around the young kids we'd produced locally, like Mickey Young, but the bright lights of going down to London or into the rugby heartland was just too much of a lure. I never used the budget as an excuse but the battle to retain players made things very difficult.

"I'm not sure how you can change that trend. You can't blame players for wanting to play in front of 12,000-15,000 every week.

"I've always been in favour of ring-fencing the Premiership. That might just give some stability but I don't think it will ever get enough support because people will always want clubs to have a crack at it, like London Welsh are doing this season.

"Newcastle are absolutely battering everyone in the Championship now. They've got a big squad and they've obviously spent a fair bit of money. But even when they go back up I'm sure it'll be tough for them again – unless they go out and get some more players."

Despite going out in the summer and getting the likes of Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray to join a squad that qualified for the Heineken Cup with a sixth-placed finish last season, Sale have struggled to find their Premiership feet in their new home, the Salford City Stadium.

Their declared aim is to become the superclub of the North, with chief executive Steve Diamond targeting regular appearances in the latter stages of the Heineken Cup and in the Premiership play-offs over the course of the next five years. Self-sufficiency – the ability to function without the financial support of co-owners Brian Kennedy and Ian Blackhurst – is another goal. Average gates of 7,500 will be required to achieve that. "Winning is the bottom line," says Mark Cueto, the former England wing, who is into his 11th season with the Sharks. "It isn't rocket science. If you've got a winning team then you're going to get support.

"It's important for us to be in the Premiership and to continue getting kids involved in the game and having an influence on the sport that way."

This is the first season since the top-flight became the Premiership in the 1997-98 term that there has been just the one flag-bearer from the north. In 2003-04 there were four: Sale, Newcastle, Leeds and Rotherham. West Hartlepool were up among the elite in the 1998-99 season before paying the price for punching above their weight in the professional era and suffering a similar implosion to Orrell, runners-up to Bath in the 1991-92 top-flight season and now playing in South Lancashire/Cheshire League One.

Back in November 1979 the barrel-chested Orrell wing John Carleton was one of the heroes in the North side that beat the All Blacks at Otley. Thirty-three years on, in the midst of the professional era, English rugby union clearly has work to do to keep the north in tow and to avert the opening of a Leicester Gap.

"It's not about Sale being at the bottom of the table and Newcastle being relegated," says Mark Evans, the former Harlequins chief executive. "It's a much longer-term thing. Its roots go back a long way – to the 1960s and 1970s, when the traditional fan base for the sport was in the midlands and the south-west.

"When the game went professional you needed to generate revenue and the clubs in the north didn't have the support and the crowd funding. The thing about the north and rugby union is there's a lot of people play it but there's not a single town in which it is dominant. There are also no events, no occasions, on which the northern rugby union tribe congregate."

In his 11 years with Quins, Evans helped attendances rise from 3,000 to 12,000. He also succeeded in bringing regular season club rugby to 80,000 crowds at Twickenham, with the now traditional Christmas-time Big Game. In the 18 months he has spent running Capacity Consultancy, he has advised both Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union on the question of the northern problem.

"I think you need a coherent strategy to address the issue," Evans says. "There are several things you could do. You could regulate the market more. You could differentially fund – in the way Australian and American sports do when they go into weaker markets.

"We could start to stage some of the prestige rugby union events outside of London. Why couldn't England play Scotland at St James' Park? New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and France all play in different home venues. I would also think towards resurrecting the North as a team and give them a game every autumn against the strongest SANZAR nation that's touring that year.

"It's extraordinarily important in the long term. If rugby union really wants to be the second winter code by a distance, it's got to have a national reach.

"Rugby union can get very sneery about rugby league – you know, 'M62 sport' and all that. Well... 'south of the Trent sport'. How does that sound?

"Doesn't it make sense to have a strategy to engage the whole country rather than two thirds of it?"

North stars: Premiership finishes

1997-98: 1st Newcastle, 7th Sale.

1998-99: 8th Newcastle, 11th Sale, 14th West Hartlepool

1999-2000: 9th Newcastle, 11th Sale.

2000-01: 6th Newcastle, 10th Sale, 12th Rotherham.

2001-02: 2nd Sale, 6th Newcastle, 12th Leeds.

2002-03: 4th Leeds, 5th Sale, 10th Newcastle.

2003-04: 7th Sale, 9th Newcastle, 11th Leeds, 12th Rotherham.

2004-05: 3rd Sale, 7th Newcastle, 8th Leeds.

2005-06: 1st Sale, 7th Newcastle, 12th Leeds.

2006-07: 9th Newcastle, 10th Sale.

07-08: 5th Sale, 11th Newcastle, 12th Leeds.

2008-09: 5th Sale, 10th Newcastle.

2009-10: 9th Newcastle, 10th Leeds, 11th Sale.

2010-11: 10th Sale, 11th Newcastle, 12th Leeds.

2011-12: 6th Sale, 12th Newcastle.