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Nick Cain: Lion king of Leeds will ride to the rescue

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Sir Ian McGeechanWhen it comes to understanding the importance of nurturing and building a brand, Sir Ian McGeechan’s track-record with the Lions takes some beating, and that’s why it comes as no surprise that Leeds Carnegie have installed him as their new executive chairman in readiness for the new season.

McGeechan’s win-loss ledger as Lions head coach may be 2-2, with series victories in Australia in 1989 and South Africa in 1997 offset by defeats in New Zealand in 1993 and South Africa in 2009, but those losses were by such fine margins, and the Lions style such a compelling concoction of guts and flair, that the touring institution’s importance and reputation grew almost as much as it did in victory.

The legions of fans who have toured the globe in support of the Lions over that 20 year span are testament to McGeechan’s legacy, with over 30,000 travelling to South Africa in 2009, and even more expected in Australia next summer.

Now Leeds are hoping that the feelgood factor, and the sustained popularity, brought to the Lions by the coach known throughout rugby as ‘Geech’, will rub off on them. The club recognises also that his global network of influence and contacts will be harnessed to the cause, as well as his knowledge of what playing structures have to be put in place to ensure a supply line of talented homegrown players.

For McGeechan’s part, he will want for more time than he was given at Bath last season, where he was parachuted in as a director of rugby and given barely a year in which to wave a magic wand and turn around a club which had been declining steadily for over a decade. McGeechan was clearly frustrated by Bath’s decision to ease him out – he said in April: “What I wanted was a bigger perspective… just because three or four results didn’t go our way, don’t think everything else isn’t right.”

However, in many ways his arrival as the white knight on a charger coming to rescue Leeds appears to have a far better symmetry to it than his stint at Bath. Despite his 32 Scotland caps, McGeechan is Leeds born-and-bred, learning rugby at Allerton Grange School, and playing for Yorkshire Colts and Yorkshire during his illustrious 15-year playing career with Headingley, whose amalgamation with Roundhay in 1992 created the Leeds club. The ‘Lion Man’ is also linked with the club’s main sponsor, the Carnegie educational foundation, because he was a student at the Leeds-based physical training college, going on to teach geography and PE at local schools.

CartoonHaving such close ties with Leeds and Yorkshire gives McGeechan a head start, but there is no question that he faces a huge task to turn Leeds into one of the biggest and best Rugby Union clubs in the country.

As things stand, Leeds Carnegie are dwarfed by their Rugby League partners, Leeds Rhinos, in terms of profile and achievement. Where the Rhinos come close to filling the 21,000 capacity Headingley ground, there are rarely more than a few thousand in attendance whenever the Union side host a Championship game, and crowds of barely 5,000 when they were last in the Premiership in 2011.

Yet, since his appointment this week, McGeechan has insisted that he sees co-operation with the Rhinos, and fostering a mutual trust and support between the two arms of Leeds rugby, as the way ahead. In the process, he has revealed that as a youngster he was a Rugby League fan before his love affair with Union took him to the pinnacle as a Lion with the undefeated 1974 tourists, playing in all four Tests against the Springboks.

When I spoke to him on Friday about his plans to take Leeds Carnegie forward he said he had already visited the Rhinos. “I went to see Brian McDermott this week and watched the Rhinos training, and that ability to share ideas in a high performance environment such as we have at Leeds is a great bonus. There is a lot to gain by exchanging ideas, and while, initially, maybe there was a sense of us being a threat to Rugby League, I don’t think that applies now.”

He added: “Most of the big Rugby Union areas in the country did not have League as competition when the game went professional, but in the North, in Yorkshire and Lancashire, there was a sense that it was a threat to Rugby League. It was a misinterpretation, but it was a dilemma – and Union lost support. However, Sale are doing a good job on the other side of the Pennines, and we have to do the same over here.”

McGeechan believes that one of the issues that the club needs to address is the perception that, unlike a hugely successful brand like the Lions, it is something new, and has no real roots, or legacy. He stressed that the opposite is true.

“People think Leeds is a new club, but Headingley were formed in 1878 and Roundhay not long afterwards, and Rugby Union is a big part of  Yorkshire’s sporting heritage. When Yorkshire played Lancashire in my day you’d fill the ground. There are 130 Rugby Union clubs in Yorkshire, making it one of the strongest areas in the country, and that’s why this season Leeds are going and playing home games in Wharfedale, York and Hull. That way we build relationships so there is a genuine link between us and the other Yorkshire clubs.”

McGeechan, 65, says it is his chance to give something back to the region. “I don’t think I would have done this with any other club…. In the Lions there is a legacy and a tradition. It is something that you are part of, and you look forward knowing where you’ve come from. We have that at Leeds, but it just needs to be redirected at pro level so it is sustainable.”

The regeneration of Rugby Union east of the Pennines would rank alongside McGeechan’s greatest achievements in the sport, and anyone with the game’s best interests at heart must hope he succeeds. However, to attract regional support that is broad and strong the Rugby Union brand needs the name Yorkshire in it, because in terms of sporting identity the Rhinos, Rugby League, and Leeds, are already joined at the hip.

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