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Opinion: England’s North Can Be Ignored No Longer

Despite competing with rugby league and football for the attention of both fans and players, England’s north is a thriving hotbed of talent and potential, yet the ruthless spending power of wealthier clubs across the rest of the country is stunting the development of three of its best teams.

Take Newcastle Falcons. In a city completely dominated by football, director of rugby Dean Richards has led a revival of a side that once achieved the seemingly impossible by bringing home the Premiership title. Yet back in 1998 it was engineered by Sir John Hall’s millions and a side leading the professional way in the wild west of the rugby world.

Even though now Newcastle Falcons simply cannot compete with the spending power of most of the clubs in the league, they currently lie seventh in the table after heroic wins against Northampton Saints, Bath and Harlequins in recent times as well as some impressive performances against others.

Sale Sharks v Newcastle Falcons - Aviva Premiership

Yet the Falcons have now lost winger Marcus Watson to Wasps, a man who initially made his name as a sevens player for England before joining the Falcons and developing into a fine fifteens player as well. That Wasps have signed him illustrates the kind of form he was showing for his club, but also is symptomatic of teams in the north having become ‘feeder’ clubs to the rest of the country. It’s repeatedly one step forward, two steps back.

Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond recently commented that when Sale played Wasps last week, 13 of the players from both teams had come through Sale’s academy.

Tommy Taylor, Simon McIntyre, James Gaskell and Rob Miller are just some of the players that left the club to push for England honours at Wasps.

Toulouse v Wasps - European Rugby Champions Cup

Looking at new caps, from 2012 onwards only Kieran Brookes, Henry Thomas and Tommy Taylor have represented their country in terms of players at northern clubs. That’s four players from fifty two or just 7.6% of new caps.

In contrast, Paul Hill, Calum Clark, Luther Burrell, Rob Webber, Lee Dickson, Geoff Parling and Phil Dowson all went on to represent their country having left Leeds, Newcastle or Sale.

Yes, Leeds – or now Yorkshire Carnegie – are a Championship side, but the point is there is a vicious cycle taking place here: Many players feel they can only establish themselves as international players at a club fighting for domestic honours at home and in Europe, but the northern clubs cannot do this if they are constantly losing players to other clubs.

Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints - Anglo-Welsh Cup

In recent times Newcastle have lost both Kieran Brookes and George McGuigan, whilst Sale have seen Will Cliff, Henry Thomas, James Gaskell, Tommy Taylor, Rob Miller and Tom Brady all head elsewhere. Even when offering others a shot at redemption or a second chance such as Danny Cipriani, Michael Paterson and the aforementioned Watson, players do eventually head off for further opportunities elsewhere.

And so Newcastle have announced the signings of the Matavesi brothers and Scarlets back DTH van de Merwe. These are good players, but the Falcons have signed them because the players they have previously developed have left.

So what can be done to help alter the situation? Well, both the RFU and Premiership Rugby can do more to ensure that the salary cap is fully enforced, as ultimately the cap is in place to prevent the kind of situation that we seen in play now: a two tier league. A quick scan of the squads of Wasps, Bath and Saracens compared to the likes of Sale and Newcastle will speak volumes.

Newcastle Falcons v Sale Sharks - Aviva Premiership

However, what really matters is the kind of support that the RFU and Premiership Rugby are offering the clubs up north. If they want union to excel in league and football territory then what is being done to make sure it happens? All the evidence shows that the clubs’ academies are fantastic in the work they do, but how can you expect these clubs to compete when their own homegrown players are taken away from them once they’re ready to face the best in Europe?

Both Newcastle and Leeds have experienced relegation in recent years and Sale have flirted with it, but all three clubs continue to fight on despite a system that is stunting their growth – not enabling it.

It is time for the powers that be to reflect on its role in growing the sport in the country, rather than simply expecting those clubs to continue to rage against the dying of the light.

Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

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