Leeds Rhinos Bygones: Bold move to help break down historic barrier

Rhinos Coach Tony Smith with England Rugby Union andLeeds players in January 2005.
Rhinos Coach Tony Smith with England Rugby Union andLeeds players in January 2005.
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A DECADE ago, several generations of rugby stalwarts were spinning in their graves.

What would have seemed unthinkable just a few years earlier became reality on January 18, 2005, when the England rugby union squad lined up alongside Leeds Rhinos for a joint training session on the pitch at Headingley Carnegie.

The players were put through their paces by Rhinos boss Tony Smith and England’s head coach Andy Robinson during the union squad’s three-day stay in Leeds.

The venture was part of Super League champions Leeds’ build-up to the World Club Challenge showdown with Canterbury Bulldogs on February 4, while England were preparing for their Six Nations opener against Wales the following afternoon.

Smith and Robinson met up in December, 2004, to discuss the plan and the Leeds coach reckoned the Super League outfit could learn from the other code’s reigning world champions.

“With our respective coaching teams we are always looking for improvement and I believe we can do that through our association which hopefully will become an ongoing one,” Smith said before the two squads got together.

“I have been highly impressed by Andy and his coaching methods and we have already developed a mutual respect. England have proved they are world leaders and we want to earn a similar tag. We can learn from their experience and use that ourselves.”

Robinson was aware the link with rugby league would upset some of the union establishment, but insisted he didn’t care.

“History doesn’t matter to me,” he told the Yorkshire Evening Post at the time. “We are rugby people working together and this is all about forging a relationship.

“Our players have been playing for the last three months and we felt it was right to have a change. This is a change of environment and a change of scenery. It is the chance to work with different people and be inspired by the players here.

“We have tried to challenge the players and it has been great to see the players working together. I think everyone has got something out of it.

“Tony is really supportive and the relationship we are going to forge is going to be an exceptional one.”

Robinson added: “I know the players are going to go back and say how good it was. This is about rugby people working together and going through rugby ideas.

“I admire the pace and the skills of the game (rugby league). I think this relationship will make me a better coach and a better person.”

Though there was to be no repeat of the historic get-together, the links have continued through current England coach Stuart Lancaster, a former Leeds Carnegie player and team boss who is a big admirer of the Rhinos club and its methods.