Yorkshire's big spenders eye a future full of prizes

Paul Stephens on two rugby sides with very different goals who meet today
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The Independent Online
Leeds and Winnington Park are the two most junior clubs in today's Pilkington Cup fifth round. It is true they both play with an oval ball and each are members of the Rugby Football Union. Though whatever other similarities there are between them ought to be considered as coincidental, because Leeds and Park are at opposite ends of rugby's increasingly important financial spectrum. Neither club has reached the last 16 before.

For Winnington Park, once the recreational section of the local ICI plant, their tie against Wasps, of the First Division, at Burrows Hill, on the edge of tranquil Northwich, is the stuff of dreams. For the League Five North club it will be an afternoon to draw from the romance of the cup and make a few bob.

Park's most illustrious son Dewi Morris, the former England scrum-half, is back to give a hand with coaching. The north-west has seen its share of cup upsets in recent years. Bath falling at Waterloo three seasons ago was one such, though, in 1989, Aspatria's 6-3 defeat of Moseley, of National League One, takes some beating.

Morris may well think it timely to remind his new charges of that dramatic reverse. He had only recently left Park for Liverpool St Helens when the Cumbrians from North One - a league below Park - dumped the previous season's semi-finalists out of the cup. If Aspatria could do it to Moseley, why can't Park do the same to Wasps? Park may be relatively impoverished, but they are big-hearted and exude the qualities which bound the game together before the discovery of money.

Not that any of this will remotely interest Leeds. The Yorkshire club have other priorities than their tie with the Second Division promotion candidates, London Irish. There will be little romance at Clarence Field, and the sponsorship money - pounds 3,000 even if they lose - is no more than petty cash. Because Leeds are rich. If modern rugby is about money, then Leeds ostensibly have few worries; they have plenty of the stuff.

When Sir John Hall took control of Newcastle, he said he would pump and prime the club until it was a success. Leeds are already pumped and primed though, like Newcastle, they have yet to achieve anything more significant than a handful of cup victories. But, for both, it is surely only a matter of time.

Leeds has not just ridden out the recession, it reeks of prosperity. The heart of the city has been a building site for the past decade, as it has surged to become the most important financial centre outside London. In 1991 the city's two senior clubs, Headingley and Roundhay, merged to form Leeds RUFC. Although the new club desperately sought to relocate, it took almost three years of planning negotiations before they could sell Headingley's ground - where they remain until the end of the season - to a supermarket group for pounds 2.25m.

The interest on the capital provides almost pounds 200,000 annually, in addition to membership fees and sponsorship and, once Roundhay's ground is sold, for another pounds 1.2m, Leeds will be the best-resourced club in the north. Soon they will move to a purpose-built stadium at Lawnswood, on the city outskirts.

Before then, there is the opportunity to play some of their home games at the Leeds Rugby League Club's ground at Headingley. This supposes that the union club - currently ninth in the Fourth Division - will avoid relegation where, ironically, they would join Winnington Park should they fail. In order to avoid that calamity, Leeds have begun to spend.

Last week they announced the signing of the Llanelli and Wales lock, Phil Davies. Already on the payroll are his former clubmates Colin Stephens, Mark Appleson and Rick McCartney from Sale, Orrell's Gerry Ainscough, plus the Wakefield pair Mike Cawthorne and Kern Yates, the England Students flanker.

Recruitment on this scale is way beyond the means of all but the most well-heeled. Davies, for instance, will move in June to Leeds where he starts as player-coach, having agreed a three-year contract for pounds 150,000. The remainder are still serving registration periods and none is eligible to face the Exiles. Instead, Leeds will rely on the team which accounted for Fylde and Second Division Waterloo.

Ken Higgins, the Leeds forwards coach, watched Irish beat London Scottish in the league a fortnight ago. "We have to contain them up front," Higgins said. "And, if we are able, we can more than match them out wide. For most of the team, tomorrow will be the biggest day in their rugby lives. After that we've got to knuckle down in the league. Then we can build towards next season, a new home, and a future. But, for the moment anyway, none of our new players and all of our money are any guarantees of success."

Try telling that to Winnington Park...