Rugby union in the north of England is dying

By Alastair EykynBBC Sport rugby union commentator
Newcastle's Jimmy Gopperth (left) and Mark Wilson
Newcastle's Jimmy Gopperth and Mark Wilson after April's defeat to Leicester

The three northern clubs in English rugby union's Premiership lie at the bottom of the table. While Sale, two off the bottom, are out of relegation danger, either basement side Leeds Carnegie or Newcastle Falcons in 11th place will go down, providing Worcester win the Championship play-off final.

Sale's long-serving owner Brian Kennedy believes that the game in the North is "dying", while legendary northern prop Fran Cotton has suggested the standard of rugby across the north of England is at its "lowest point in history".

So, how bad is the situation? And, what can be done to revive the sport in this part of the country?

Forty years ago, the North was something of a rugby union powerhouse. Clubs such as Gosforth (now Newcastle), Waterloo, Orrell, Sale and Fylde all punched their weight, providing a wealth of talent for the national side. In 1972, the North-West Counties famously beat the touring All Blacks 16-14 in Workington, Cumbria.

Seven years later, this time as The North, a team featuring the likes of Cotton, Roger Uttley, Tony Neary, Bill Beaumont, John Carleton, Mike Slemen and Steve Smith hammered New Zealand 21-9 at Otley in Yorkshire.

"Everyone in the north of England seems to have been at that game," Cotton recalled. "There was a massive impact, to have the touring team playing here, and then to achieve those results."

Since that time, regional rugby has disappeared and northern clubs have struggled to make a sustained impact. There are two notable exceptions, of course, in the form of Newcastle in 1998 and Sale in 2006.

Both won the domestic Premiership title but, as the former England coach Brian Ashton pointed out, "to an extent, both clubs bought their success".

In the case of the Falcons, Sir John Hall's money assembled some world-class talent at Kingston Park in the early days of the professional game. The Sharks did likewise with Brian Kennedy's millions, under the tutelage of Philippe Saint-Andre.

Money has been a problem, though. While investment from the likes of Kennedy (around £16m at Sale) Dave Thompson (£9m at Newcastle) and Paul Caddick (£9m at Leeds) has been absolutely vital, it has not led to enduring success. Neither has it guaranteed that high-quality players are attracted - and then stay.

Gates of 4-5,000 are not sufficient to sustain the clubs, meaning that the popularity of the game needs to grow if the clubs are to break the cycle of struggle; not an easy feat given, amongst other factors, the competition for attention from other sports.

Football has eight Premier League clubs situated in the North West. Add Newcastle and Sunderland in the North East, you have half of the top flight.

Ashton offered cricket as an unlikely competitor too, with Yorkshire, Lancashire and Durham among the most successful counties, picking off young talent.

Throw in the vast appeal of rugby league along the south Lancashire corridor from Widnes to St Helens, Warrington, Wigan and Salford, then up to Yorkshire in Leeds, Huddersfield, Bradford, Wakefield and Castleford and you begin to get the full picture. This is a rich sporting environment.

The community game in the north of England remains strong. British and Irish Lion John Bentley, who played for Newcastle, Sale and Leeds, is now involved as community marketing manager at Headingley.

"In Yorkshire, we have 108 rugby union clubs affiliated to the Rugby Football Union," Bentley said.

"The junior sections are thriving. On a matchday at Headingley, we have kids from all over the county - from Wensleydale, Ripon, Wharfedale, Cleckheaton, Huddersfield, Keighley, Sheffield, Bridlington, Scarborough, Hull Ionians… the demographics of our crowd are fantastic."

The challenge, of course, is retaining home-grown players. The northern clubs have a long tradition of producing international talent.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the north of England develops better rugby players than any other area of the country, and will continue to do so - not least because of the commitment to both codes of rugby in the schools around here" Ashton stated.

You only have to look at the current England back division to recognise the truth of that. Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Mark Cueto, Mike Tindall and Toby Flood all hail from the North, although Sale's Cueto is the only one still playing up there.

In the 70s, Cotton remembers Lancashire producing 23 internationals, five England captains and a British and Irish Lions captain. Back then, regional rugby was the shop window for players like Cotton to advance their international cause. Now, the Heineken Cup provides that platform and the best players migrate to the clubs playing in Europe's premier club competition.

So what can be done to ensure the north of England continues to play a key role in the sport? The game's governing body, the RFU, recognises the need to help, but how? Should they invest in the northern clubs, to provide a financial cushion and enable them to compete with those in the south of England with strong support bases and more secure foundations?

Such a scenario would throw up awkward questions about centralised control from Twickenham and, presumably, a say in recruitment and how the clubs spend their money.

The reaction of the southern-based clubs would be interesting, to say the least. Throughout the Premiership, clubs exist primarily thanks to the largesse of wealthy benefactors. They, too, are entitled to an opinion.

"The RFU and Premier Rugby need a new, imaginative strategy to reshape the game in the north of England," Cotton reflected.

"There will be no increase in crowds and revenues without it. We never see a touring team up here. We never see any of the major internationals up here.

"In 1997, England played the All Blacks at Old Trafford. Seventy-five thousand people were in the ground. South Africa play Leicester. Australia play Gloucester. They never play Leeds, or Newcastle, or Sale Sharks. It needs a rethink about how we promote the game".

The RFU's new Operations Director Rob Andrew insists the clubs must organise their own fixtures against touring teams. The message seems clear from Twickenham that they would like the clubs to seek out these matches themselves, rather than rely on RFU intervention.

The idea of internationals being put up for tender in the North seems a good one. Andrew told BBC Radio 5 Live that the idea would be looked at by the new chief executive John Steele. France, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand spread matches around their country.

Is there any good reason why the odd game should not be played away from Twickenham? It is clearly not the only answer but it might just breathe life into rugby union, where it is most needed.

Perhaps then, the clubs in the north of England can actually compete, rather than simply survive.

England face the haka before the All Blacks tour match at Old Trafford in November 1997
England face the haka before the All Blacks tour match at Old Trafford in November 1997, which New Zealand won 25-8