Guinness Premiership preview: Reign of Stuarts hoping to make history at Leeds
Coach Lancaster and captain Hooper are in a relegation dogfight but they will rely on local talent to save the day. By Tim Glover
Sunday 30 December 2007
If anybody is breaking the salary cap in the Guinness Premiership and clubs are always dropping hints about the biggest spenders it cannot be Leeds. When they were promoted last season they did not scour the southern hemisphere, chequebook in hand, but looked closerto home. They raided Rotherham and spent the equivalent of sale prices.
"When we won promotion at the end of April there was a lack of top players available," Stuart Lancaster, the Leeds director of rugby, said. "Many of them were already committed. Recruitment starts very early." At 38, Lancaster, a former PE teacher, is one of the youngest coaches in the top flight, yet he has been a fixture at Leeds for so long he began playing for the club after the merger of Headingley and Roundhay in 1992.
A former back-rower, he was the first to play 100 games for Leeds, and when he was forced to retire through injury in 2000 he spent five years developing the club's academy. It is vital to their long-term future. After Leeds had gone down in 2006, Lancaster succeeded Phil Davies, who moved back to Llanelli to coach the Scarlets, and was grateful that Stuart Hooper, their impressive captain who could easily have moved onwards and upwards, opted to stay at Headingley.
The Leeds mascot is called "The Challenger", though "The Challenged" might be more apt. The frustration of the season has already brought Hooper two yellow cards. Eight games into a 22-match programme back in the Premiership, Leeds already seem to be locked with Worcester in a dogfight to avoid relegation. They have won one, 26-21 at home to Worcester in October, and have just five points to their name. Their points difference is the coldest place in the universe minus 150.
That could be increased today when Leeds, coming off a 41-10 defeat at Bath, play Sale at Headingley. They have never beaten them in the Premiership but drew 29-29 in 2002. Those were the days. That season, Leeds finished fifth in the table, above Leicester for goodness' sake, after losingeight of 22 league games.
They were then known as Leeds Tykes to distinguish them from the rugby league team the Rhinos. Four years earlier, Leeds Rugby Ltd had been formed by chairman Paul Caddick, creating the world's first dual-code partnership. Last May, Leeds Metropolitan University took a 51 per cent interest in the club, who were renamed Leeds Carnegie.
This is Lancaster's first season in charge in the Premiership. "It may be a clich but believe me there aren't any easy games. We've just played Bath, now we've got Sale and then it's Wasps. It is becoming one of the best leagues in the world, so I'm not surprised that it's going to be a tough old season. What has surprised me is that the whole thing is so incredibly consuming. Everything is full-on, and not just the physical side. We were under huge pressure to get promoted last season and we dealt with it very well, but then we faced a completely different set of demands, the whole spectrum.
"The thing is, while you're out of the Premiership, the Premiership moves on again. National League One is getting more professional but then you takethe step up and the speed of decision-making is accelerated. Whatever the facet of the game you have to be so quick, accurate and physical or you're going to finish second." Or 12th, again.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in this unforgiving environment that what goes up must come down. It has happened to Bristol, Rotherham and Northampton as well as Leeds. Lancaster of Yorkshire, where the population prefers soccer and rugby league to union, is, not surprisingly given his club's yo-yo experience, not opposed to promotion and relegation, but he has reservations. "One up, one down makes it an attractive season from top to bottom, but the question is whether it helps the future development of English players. More and more homegrown players are finding it harder and harder to get first-class opportunities because clubs choose to buy security, and the danger is that over the long term the national game will suffer."
The priority of Lancaster and Hooper during the reign of the Stuarts is the future of White Rose rugby rather than Red and, if loyalty and a tight-knit squad counts for anything, Leeds would appear to be in good hands. But often, of course, events are taken out of their hands.
"Looking at the small picture we have to focus on our performance and the next game," Lancaster said. "The bigger picture is that during the Six Nations there are a lot of Premiership points available and we've got to find a way to win. My job is to build and maintain self-belief and drive standards. We've got to keep our attitude. That's always held us in good stead. I'm very fortunate. I speak to Phil Davies regularly and I've got a great group of senior players."
And a group drawn from clubs who don't often feature on Premiership CVs: Vale of Lune, Harrogate, Huddersfield, Hull Ionians, Darlington, Trafford Metrovick, Leodiensians... and Fredrikstad, Norway. That's where the 6ft 8in lock Erik Lund was born. He joined Leeds in the summer from Rotherham and today will face his brother Magnus, Sale's England back-row. Erik has bought 17 tickets for family and friends, some of whom have travelled from Oslo.
Leeds Met is also known as Carnegie, after the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose support led to the establishment of a PE teacher-trainingcollege at Headingley 75 years ago. Lancaster is a former pupil. Could Leeds do with a mega-rich benefactor in the Premiership? "I do not want to see one sugar daddy bankrolling the team," Lancaster said. "We've earned the right to be where we are and I want Yorkshire players playing in a Yorkshire side. I've been here 15 years and I've seen the sacrifices made since we set out from National League Four. I know how hard so many people have worked and I for one will not allow anybody to give up the dream."
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