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Inclement elements fail to halt Yorkshire Carnegie progress

20 January 2016
Inclement elements fail to halt Yorkshire Carnegie progress
Regardless of the sport, any individual involved in a season which spans the turn of the year will look forward to the ‘run-in’, which traditionally starts, at least in a psychological sense, as soon as the clock strikes midnight on December 31st. The ‘business end of the season’ is another familiar term which transcends different sporting pursuits. But in 2016, the individuals within Yorkshire Carnegie will be particularly keen to see the grass growing again and buds forming on the trees surrounding their recovering Kirkstall training base.

Postponements due to inclement weather are part and parcel of outdoor sports, of course, but in most cases the participants would much rather the game went ahead. For this reason, Yorkshire Carnegie are thankful that minimal arrangements are required for their games to be switched to different venues at short notice.

This has happened twice this season when the Club have planned ‘on the road’ events for their British & Irish Cup (B&I Cup) games, ironically both involving grounds in Huddersfield. A low key debut for Kevin Sinfield was scuppered in November when heavy rain made Huddersfield YMCA’s Laund Hill ground unplayable, and therefore, Sinfield’s historic first appearance in the Union code was hastily switched to the well-acquainted surroundings of Headingley Carnegie.

Last weekend, Huddersfield RUFC were due to host Carnegie’s Pool Three tie against Munster A, but the frost bit hard the day before and the game was switched to the famous underground-heated pitch again, at least with a little more notice.

The Headingley pitch is one of the best in the country of course, and subject to significant investment in money and expertise. What Yorkshire Carnegie can’t do much about, however, are the biblical downpours that hit the City of Leeds on Boxing Day, and turned their training headquarters into a temporary playground for ducks.

More disruption followed as the squad re-located to West Park Leeds, where the facilities – including an artificial 3G pitch similar to the one which Carnegie played on against Ealing Trailfinders recently – allowed attempts at an almost seamless winter to continue. Throughout all this, somehow Yorkshire Carnegie have negotiated the numerous and unprecedented obstacles to record five successive wins in all competitions. This run has included three B&I Cup wins over London Scottish (twice) and Munster A to take control of Pool Three and set up a home Semi-Final in the knockout stages of the competition, and has also seen Bryan Redpath’s men record back-to-back league wins for the first time since early October.

It has been a timely resurgence that has consolidated Carnegie’s place in the top four play-off places, with the group of Bristol Rugby, Doncaster, Carnegie and Bedford Blues looking likely to stay well ahead of the chasing pack for the rest of the season. After an uncertain spell in the Autumn months, Carnegie’s big players have come to the fore just at the right time and in the face of numerous uncooperative factors.

Of course much attention has been focussed on Kevin Sinfield’s baby steps on a Rugby Union field. The Rhinos legend has become an increasingly central figure with his impressive kicking stats, and the fly half position appears to be his to lose with him continuing to feature as the regular choice for Championship games.

Elsewhere, a series of free-scoring victories has seen Carnegie gather an impressive 13 bonus points, the most in the league, and these have been partly the result of two four-try hauls in recent weeks. Back rower Josh Bainbridge crossed the line four times in the 43-9 victory over local rivals Rotherham Titans on December 27th. The Christmas holiday clash saw the second-biggest home attendance of the season of 3,292, despite the Headingley ground being almost cut adrift by the local floods the day before; but Bainbridge took advantage of the conditions and had plundered a hat-trick before half-time.

The next bonus point came via a 45-29 win away at Ealing Trailfinders, where the tries were shared between David Doherty, Jonah Holmes, Andy Saull and Ryan Burrows. In wet and miserable conditions down south, Carnegie made a strong late surge to secure the points and ensure a great start to 2016. This was continued last weekend, when the late switch to Headingley helped Carnegie record a 43-29 win over Munster A, via another four-try showreel, this time from stand-in Captain Andy Saull.

While Carnegie can point to weather disruption not helping their cause, the B&I Cup has given Redpath scope to make sweeping changes to his side, and he has certainly taken the opportunity. The Carnegie coach made a whopping twelve changes to his starting line-up for the Munster A game, citing the need to give players within his sizeable squad sufficient game time, in some cases, as a platform to earn new contracts at the end of the season. Given the lack of continuity in personnel, Redpath was particularly pleased with how Carnegie controlled the game in the first half against Munster, albeit before a second half rally from the away team. Good set pieces and finishing wide opportunities have contributed to Carnegie looking a far more impressive unit in recent weeks, and Redpath will be looking for his squad to carry that form into the spring.

Carnegie’s generally solid recent progress has been recognised this week, with the inclusion of four players in the England Under-20s squad for the upcoming Six Nations tournament. While Redpath may rue more disturbance to his team, the call-ups are great recognition for Josh Bainbridge, Jack Walker, Taylor Prell and Lewis Boyce, with fly half Max Green also training with the squad as injury cover. Their absence will also highlight the value of offering fringe players game time in the B&I Cup games, because inevitably they will have big contributions to make to cover the gaps the call-ups create.

From here, Carnegie face a final B&I Cup group game against Ospreys Premiership Select this weekend before returning to league action. The trip to Neath should be a fairly comfortable one for the Headingley side. Not only have they qualified from their group already, but they also face an Ospreys side who have the polar opposite record to them over the last five games, having lost them all.

Focus will then return to the Greene King IPA Championship, with a trip to London Scottish completing the January fixtures, before February opens with a Headingley engagement with Cornish Pirates.

There’s no guarantee that the weather won’t intervene with Carnegie’s arrangements again before the clocks go forward in March, but certainly the experience of the last few weeks will make the team more adaptable to change, if nothing else. Kevin Sinfield says the players and staff have been “slightly hampered” by the change in training routines and playing venues, a typically understated and realistic comment, given the harrowing conditions many Leeds householders have had to endure in recent weeks. Certainly, Carnegie have adopted a ‘business as usual’ attitude to their many upheavals; typical Yorkshire grit and stoicism you might say, and it appears to be an approach that is paying dividends now, and will again in the long run.

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.