Why rugby union’s top official wants Leeds United promoted

IT is hard to imagine that Ian Ritchie, the former Rugby Football Union chief executive and current head of Premiership Rugby, was brought up in Beeston in the shadows of Leeds United’s Elland Road stadium.

Saturday, 14th December 2019, 5:54 am
Flashback: New England coach Eddie Jones, centre, alongside RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie, of Leeds, right, and RFU chairman Bill Beaumont in November, 2015.

Obviously, it is not the stereotypical image of a major rugby union powerbroker; the inner-city suburb is certainly far different to Twickenham.

Admittedly, Ritchie was educated at Leeds Grammar School, now known as The Grammar School at Leeds since merging with Leeds Girls’ High School in 2005.

That is where his love for rugby first initiated but, understandably given the football-mad area in which he resided, there was an affinity with United, too.

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“I could walk to the ground from where I lived in Beeston,” he told The Yorkshire Post, when back in the city recently with England head coach Eddie Jones.

“I was fairly unusual; there were not that many coming out of the school who got the number one bus from Woodhouse Moor to Beeston…

“I did play rugby and it was always rugby at school, certainly going back to the 60s. There wasn’t even an option to play football.

“When I was at the junior school in the front-row, my other prop was Duncan Revie – Don’s son – as he was here at the same time. Duncan and I, who were seen avidly at Elland Road, were the front-row of the school rugby team which was entertaining.

“But, at that time, Leeds in the 60s and 70s was just amazing.

“I remember going to the European Cup final in Paris, too, when they lost to Bayern Munich.

“They were great days at Leeds Grammar. I was 10 years there but the trouble is it was so long ago. It was ’62 to ’72 so almost in the Dark Ages but to see the school here now (it moved to Alwoodley in 1997) it does bring back great memories of all the sport as it was hugely important.

“Also, of course, it rekindles memories of the halcyon days of Leeds United. If you weren’t sport-obsessed before, you certainly had to be at that time.”

Ritchie, appointed RFU chief executive on this day in 2011, was at The Grammar School at Leeds having arranged for Jones to officially open their new artificial pitch, speak to kids at training and hold a Q&A session.

He appointed the Australian as Red Rose coach in 2015 and after seeing them reach the World Cup final last month hopes he will extend his deal to the next tournament in 2023.

“I flew down to Cape Town to try and recruit him as he was working in South Africa at the time and he’s done great things,” said the Yorkshireman, who took over at Premiership Rugby in April last year.

“It’s not my call obviously as I’m retired from the RFU now. But I know he’s got a couple of years left on his contract and the great thing I know about Eddie is he is constantly looking at ‘how can I improve and how do I improve other people?’

“Losing is not what he wanted, so he will be entirely plotting ‘how do I win in the final?’

“They just fell short in Japan and I was involved when Stuart Lancaster – who obviously lives in Leeds as well – was coach (in 2015) and felt really sorry for that. Eddie came in and getting to the final was a great achievement.”

On the domestic front, though, it is a crying shame that no team from the Broad Acres has been in the Premiership since Leeds Carnegie were relegated in 2011.

Moreover, the current club – Yorkshire Carnegie – is in financial dire straits and is bottom of the Championship operating on a part-time basis. Ritchie has not lost hope of a revival and said: “There’s huge scope for something in Leeds – as in Yorkshire – for having a team in the Premiership.

“The number of clubs and players in Yorkshire is big. It merits all of that and, therefore, merits a club. The thing now is trying to get the finances together. That’s always been a difficult thing. I just hope it happens.

“That would be one of my New Year’s Eve wishes. The other... Mr Bielsa to take Leeds United into the Premier League. That would be a good double-whammy.”

Meanwhile, the subject of ring-fencing rarely goes away.

Ritchie, 65, said: “It is the balance between what we’re looking at here – participation everywhere at all schools and you wanting people to play rugby and come through the system.

“Absolutely one sees the advantages, therefore, or promotion and relegation.

“On the other side, is an economic one – like we were talking about with Yorkshire Carnegie – as to what you can afford and how can you deal with it.

“Sometimes you have to deal with the reality. At the moment it’s a sort of a compromise and the status quo prevails. Will it prevail going forward? That’s a decision for everyone to make in the next few years.”