As the England team head towards their last warm-up game against Italy at St James’ Park in Newcastle in what should be a successful promotional match for rugby in the north east, I can’t help thinking it’s in the wrong place.
I know and understand the double need of warm-up games as a final test for players, and to raise vital capital to fund what is usually a difficult financial year. This is a result of competing in the World Cup with no home Autumn Internationals, but why play a game in Newcastle?
With the north of England boasting only two Premiership sides – Sale and last season Newcastle – it would surely have made more sense to have a fixture in the biggest rugby playing county in England without a Premiership side, Yorkshire.
The RFU have bent over backwards to help Yorkshire Carnegie, even bending their own rules to allow them to stay in the Championship on a technicality, much to the annoyance of many of the other clubs in that and other national leagues.
Staging a warm-up game outside of Twickenham obviously reduces the revenue that can be kept by the RFU, but if it is used to promote the sport in an area where the sport is not played or is slowly failing, it can be seen as value for money.
The need for all areas of the country to have a vibrant grassroots and professional game is often misunderstood and is one of the main reasons a ring-fenced Premiership cannot happen at this time if the game wants to continue to grow and flourish.
The idea of changing the game to a league-based structure in 1987 was to create aspiration in all clubs, to drive for excellence and grow the game, with the hope that each region would produce a pool of the best players for representative rugby to choose from.
Some will argue this has happened with professional teams signing the ‘best’ young players to academies. Others will say the loss of the lower representative levels, counties and divisional, has reduced the opportunities for a number of young players and late developers.
From a union point of view, any region in the country that doesn’t house a professional team is an area that needs the game promoted to increase interest and recruitment.
A major international played locally can create the enthusiasm for local clubs and schools and can increase participation, particularly if England do well at the World Cup. The hard part is keeping them playing and that’s where a local Premiership club should step in and encourage the sport in their region.
All the efforts the RFU have made to help Carnegie survive in the second tier of professionalism must be in the hope they can re-establish themselves and push for the Premiership, but if that door is closed it is likely they will fold in the near future and the game in Yorkshire will continue to decline.
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