(Photo: Getty Images)
By Jon Newcombe
AS Chris Boyd stands by to usher in the winds of change at Northampton, another Hurricane has already been like a breath of fresh air 140 miles up the M1 in Leeds.
New Yorkshire Carnegie DoR and former Hurricanes high-performance manager Chris Stirling is three weeks into an exhaustive fact-finding mission and has seen enough during his stopover in the UK to be convinced the club can still become a major player in the English game despite years of inertia.
His first impressions have been wholly favourable, and others feel the same way about him, even Worcester who came very close to appointing the Aucklander only to opt for Alan Solomons instead.
“From my perspective, everything I hoped I’d see here, I’ve seen. Right the way through the club, everyone is clear about what they want to achieve,” Stirling said.
“I’m asking a lot of questions and I have to say that the information coming back, and the honesty from players and staff, absolutely underlines the fact they care passionately about this club.”
Stirling’s task is very different to the one confronting Super Rugby title-winning chief and good mate Boyd, who has been in the UK on a flying visit, after taking advantage of a bye week in the Hurricanes’ Super Rugby schedule.
Carnegie don’t have the financial muscle, support or history of the Saints but they have a stadium, albeit leased from Leeds Rugby, that’s going to be better than anything else in the Premiership once the £40m renovation of Headingley is complete, and an academy that continues to produce players with top-flight potential.
The age-old problem for Carnegie is preventing that talent from moving on to bigger and better things, and Stirling is acutely aware that delivering Premiership rugby is key to keeping the Danny Cares and Tom Palmers of this world.
“The feeling is that if we can finish the squad the way we are hoping to for next season we are definitely a club that can be in contention. How long it will take (to get promotion) is the million-dollar question,” he admitted.
Stirling did a wonderful job during his last stint in English rugby at Cornish Pirates, assembling a squad that reached two Championship finals and won the inaugural B&I Cup. Given more financial resources, and a Premiership-ready stadium, they could have gone all the way.
Money is equally tight in Yorkshire, but Stirling insists he wouldn’t have swapped one of the best ‘club’ environments in world rugby if he was in any way doubtful of Carnegie’s ability to back up their vision with hard cash.
“The financial side of things is taking care of itself in the background and I am confident everything is in place, it is just going to take a little bit of time,” he said.
“If we neglect to get the foundations right, and we get the opportunity to go up, then the whole thing will just come tumbling down. It is better to spend time building the base, because the broader the base the higher the peak will be.”
While the re-signings of captain Richard Mayhew and influential back-row colleague, Richard Beck, have added to the more positive mood at Headingley, the squad for next season is still very much a work in progress.
In Boyd, Stirling knows he’ll have a useful ally just down the road and the two met at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday. That relationship and those he has back in New Zealand could potentially benefit Carnegie in terms of players coming in on loan, but the 55-year-old says organic growth remains top priority.
“The responsibility lies with us to create an environment that means we can attract and then retain the players we want to retain. If we can do that, and we get the succession planning right, we will be pretty much self-sufficient which would be great. If our top priority in recruitment is to go outside the region or outside the country, we’re not doing our job right.”
While Stirling’s knowledge of Rugby League is so limited he probably thinks a 40:20 is a kind of cheap-end alcoholic drink, the 55-year-old is keen to work closely with Leeds Rhinos moving forward.
“What is gold for me is that we have another professional organisation who are extremely successful in their code working in the same building.
“Not many clubs in England would have the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other like that and have that availability of resource. They are successful for a reason, and I want to tap into that.”
The relationship between League and Union has always been fractious, and at times Leeds has been no different despite its past existence as a dual-code club.
But Stirling works well with people and may just be the man who can fix what others have failed to do.
Worcester’s loss could be Yorkshire’s gain – if, and it is a big if given three Premiership clubs are trying to do the same – significant financial backers can be found.
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