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Are England’s Northern Sides Destined To Be Feeder Clubs Forever?

SALFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27: Tommy Taylor of Sale Sharks is tackled by Kelly Brown of Saracens during the Aviva Premiership match between Sale Sharks and Saracens at AJ Bell Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Salford, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Despite only being represented through two clubs in the Aviva Premiership, the north of England has provided English rugby with a significant number of top quality players in the professional era and should be celebrated for its importance to the game.

Currently Sale Sharks provide Josh Beaumont and Tommy Taylor to the England squad, the only players from northern sides to make the Six Nations squad. However, the impact of the north on England and the English club goes far greater than this.

To provide you with an example of how important the north is to the English game, have a look at some of the players who have played for England or are close to doing so and were either born or raised in the north of the country:

Props: Kieran Brookes (Raised in Lancashire), Ross Harrison (Bolton), Paul Hill (Raised in Yorkshire)

Hookers: Tommy Taylor (Macclesfield), Rob Vickers (Barnsley)

Locks: Geoff Parling (Stockton-On-Tees), Christian Day (Blackpool)

Back Row: Josh Beaumont (Blackpool), Will Welch (Newcastle), Magnus Lund (Manchester)

Scrum Halves: Danny Care (Leeds), Richard Wigglesworth (Blackpool), Micky Young (Hartlepool)

Fly Halves: George Ford (Oldham), Owen Farrell (Wigan), Charlie Hodgson (Halifax)

Centres: Kyle Eastmond (Manchester), Luther Burrell (Huddersfield), Will Addison (Penrith), Sam James (Wilmslow)

Wingers: David Strettle (Lymm), Tom Brady (Urmston), Chris Ashton (Wigan)

Fullbacks: Ben Foden (Chester), Mike Haley (Preston), Alex Tait (Bishop Auckland)

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And there are probably more, but you can see that in actuality nine of the thirty nine players used during the Six Nations were born or raised in the north. Given rugby league’s dominance in areas like Yorkshire and Lancashire it is somewhat surprising that so many players from the north end up playing top flight or even Test rugby.

Sadly, clubs up north are still struggling to attract crowds. According to the Aviva Premiership’s own stats, both Newcastle and Sale have the lowest total attendances in the league, with Newcastle having a total of 56,346 so far and Sale 54,037. When you think Leicester have had over 200,000 spectators this season, it shows there is a lot of work to do for rugby union to truly crack the north.

There have been numerous attempts by the clubs to take a stranglehold on rugby in the geographical area. Back in 2011, Sale Sharks’ Director of Rugby Steve Diamond talked about creating a ‘super club’ in the north (via The Daily Telegraph):

“We’ve got grand plans, we are embryonic in what we are doing but we are proving that will a bit of direction and enthusiasm and not a lot of money – because we are spending far less money than we have ever spent — we can go places.

“The owners are asking me ‘how do we create a super northern club?’ and I am saying, ‘let’s get the foundations in place for the next year or so.’”

Similarly, Leeds Tykes rebranded themselves as Yorkshire Carnegie in an attempt to appeal to the whole of the region rather than just the city of Leeds. Chief Executive Gary Hetherington said back in 2014 (via the BBC):

“The business model for professional rugby union has changed dramatically over the last decade and now we must forge a new way to give Yorkshire the chance to succeed.

“Rather than relying on the generosity of a handful of benefactors we now want to create a group to control the Yorkshire franchise and allow the club to challenge the best in England and Europe.”

Given the numbers of northerners thriving throughout English rugby it seems frustrating that any of the major clubs have yet to make any huge inroads in terms of popularity and appeal, with Newcastle and Sale having flirted with or suffered relegation in recent years and Yorkshire Carnegie currently in the Championship.

Moreover, a number of players seem to believe playing at a northern club will harm their international chances. Tommy Taylor, Sale’s young hooker who was called up as an injury replacement during the Six Nations, has already stated he has joined Wasps from next season to help him push for an England spot:

“For me it’s about the exposure I might get there (Wasps) and the big games that they are involved in,” he told the Manchester Evening News.

“Wasps was the choice because of what they have done – they are through to the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup and if you get man of the match against, say, Leinster, then it’s a big step-up from say the Challenge Cup.”

Unfortunately it is something of a vicious circle for Sale, Newcastle and Leeds: build up players through academy pathways, provide them with opportunities in the first team, but then rather than stay and help the clubs to grow many players leave to make the most of their short careers. At the moment the top northern clubs are becoming nursery teams for other, bigger clubs.

Hopefully the likes of Sale can get back to where they were under the guidance of Jim Mallinder and Philippe Saint-Andre when they won both the European Challenge Cup and the Guinness Premiership, with a wonderful core of English talent that went on to represent England at the highest level. However, it will always be a challenge when their top players are poached with such alarming regularity.

Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.