- Headingley attendance underlines depth of support
- Training session pulls in northern rugby union devotees
Photo: Getty Images
Six thousand rugby union enthusiasts from clubs, schools, colleges and universities across the north of England and further afield delivered a ringing endorsement of England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster’s belief in the goodwill available to the game if the elite game is closely connected with the grassroots.
Cumbria-born Lancaster brought his England squad back to Yorkshire, just as he did a year ago, when a session at Leeds University’s Weetwood Ground attracted a 2,500 crowd. Last Friday the facilities at Headingley Carnegie, home of RFU Championship club Leeds, were used to deliver a rugby audience of more than double the previous year's size.
Over 240 parties, ranging from Bedfordshire in the South to Northumberland in the North, from Lincolnshire in the East to Cheshire and Cumbria in the West, made the journey to watch England training on the famous Headingley turf, their support for the strategy being reflected by both their numbers and their comments.
“It’s hugely pleasing to see so many rugby folk – and especially young people – turning up and enjoying their time with us,” said Lancaster. “Many have travelled long distances to be here and I hope that they will be returning home having enjoyed their trip to Leeds.
“I remember during my time as Academy Coach at Leeds getting an opportunity to watch England training. I went all the way to London to attend the session and to this day I can still remember it. I hope the young people who have been here today share my experience and go away excited and inspired by seeing the players up close.”
“It’s also important for the players to meet the fans because it makes them understand what England Rugby is about and what it means to other people, but it’s also important for supporters to get the chance to meet the players when in normal circumstances they would never ever come face to face.
“For that to happen at a ground where I’ve played 100 games is brilliant.”
Inspiring new players
Former Leeds Carnegie player Danny Care endorsed the view. He said: “To see around 4,000/5,000 people here, with loads of kids, is great for Leeds and great for the club.
“I have loads of special memories of the stadium because it was part of my growing up and my rugby career. The club gave me my first chance to show what I could do at the top level so I owe them a lot.
“The crowd shows that rugby is massive everywhere and to see the players here is a reminder to all the kids that players can reach the top from anywhere.”
RFU Rugby Development Director Steve Grainger was also full of praise for the project and the support it received. He said: “This is exactly what our game should be about. There’s a fantastic atmosphere and for all these youngsters to see their rugby legends so close up a week before the Six Nations is fantastic.
“For the players to see all the kids and for the coaching staff and the professional staff to see the commitment of the teachers and the club people despite warnings of bad weather just shows their commitment.
“We are all working towards the one-game concept where we have a connection between the first time someone picks up a ball and the time they run out at Twickenham as an international. All the players in the squad started out at a club or a school somewhere and they never forget those earliest days and enjoy re-connecting with their roots.”
No 8 Ben Morgan agreed: “It’s an honour to start with,” he said. “To have so many people coming to watch you train is unbelievable and I feel really honoured that they feel that way, especially when the weather is as cold as it is.
“It’s brilliant to see so many kids here and I know that had this been available when I was a youngster, it would have made my year.”
Gregg Bayliss, Rugby Development Officer for Central Yorkshire and newcomer to Leeds, said: “This is fantastic for the local community. They are getting to see the stars of England and also getting to see some really good role models.
“When I stood at the gate asking people who played rugby and who didn’t, it was a really good mix, but everyone was equally excited. Hopefully seeing the England players will inspire more new players to pick up a ball and try the game.
“As a promotional tool for the game, this is one of the most remarkable opportunities we’ve had in the Yorkshire area.”
Roots in the North still strong
Yorkshireman Rob Andrew, RFU Professional Rugby Director, believes that the turnout at Headingley simply reflects a situation in the North that is not as critical as some observers would have us believe. He said: “The numbers show the power of English rugby and the power of the team. That’s one of the great things about Stuart bringing the team back to Leeds and making them available to the public.
“It’s sometimes difficult to get the team out and about around the country, but this just shows you how important it is and how much people want to see the team and players.
“I think it does act as a reminder that there are people out here who do have a great passion for the game, but I don’t think that people actually ever forget that, especially those of us from this part of the world who realise that rugby is very strong in the North.”
And the last word to a proud father, Chris Jones, who has been involved in the game for many years and is now watching his son Tom’s career develop at Terrington Hall School near York.
“Days like this are massively inspirational and the excitement generated has to be seen to be believed,” he says: “To get so close to the players and be able to talk to them is hugely important and central to what Stuart has been trying to do.
“This is a great bunch of young players who realise what it’s like to be inspired by someone you’ve seen on television. To see them in the flesh makes all the difference. It’s a wonderful opportunity and long may it continue. It has huge benefits.”