Newcastle Falcons' Relegation; what, how and where to now?
As Newcastle Falcons' relegation from The Gallagher Premiership was rubber-stamped on Saturday, we reflect on an unscripted decline, as the unlikely lads season ended in equally as surprising circumstances as the prior, for all of the wrong reasons.
April 27th 2018. Welford Road. Leicester. Ally Hogg storms over the line two minutes after the clock had gone dead. Tane Takulua holds his nerve and slots one of the most decisive conversions in his club's storied history. Newcastle Falcons confirm their maiden Premiership semi-final appearance and nail down a Champions Cup birth, their first in seven years. 372 days later, exactly fifty three weeks, in fact, the Falcons elation is replaced by desperation, as relegation to the Championship is confirmed. What could have possibly gone wrong?
Despite the season beginning with tight defeats to Saracens and Exeter, Newcastle’s performances suggested a challenge for a top six spot for consecutive seasons, off the back of their first ever Premiership semifinal appearance in the previous campaign, was not beyond reason. Later came a venture into the Champions Cup, their first in fourteen years, a historical victory away in the Cauldron of Stade Mayol, with a pulsating triumph over big Spenders Montpellier following, Newcastle were transporting their previous campaigns league form with relative ease onto the continent. With back to back victories over Bath and Northampton, Newcastle seemed to be back to the team that shocked the established Premiership royalty the previous year.
It wasn’t to last long, a run of 9 defeats in both domestic and European competition saw the Falcons glued to bottom spot, as the latest of Indian summers in the form of three consecutive victories over rivals Worcester, as well as semifinal chasing Wasps on the road and Sale at St James Park was not enough to pull Newcastle out of their predicament as relegation was confirmed at Kingsholm.
Whenever a team suffers relegation from the Premiership, it only ever seems to be in one of two scenarios. A promoted side struggling to adapt to the intensity and quality of the Gallagher Premiership, or, a long drawn out decline where an inevitable relegation is realised. Newcastle fall into neither category.
Whilst The Falcons produced two sublime performances to open their Champions Cup campaign, the squad struggled to maintain that level of play, as form slid rapidly, Newcastle struggled to break out of a predictable attack, repeating serious of one out phases for marginal gain, usually resulting in a box kick. Teams recognised this early, maintaining organisation around each breakdown, and committing additional bodies in their own 22 to set up counter attack’s with maximum efficiency, knowing Newcastle would likely not run or spread wide anywhere other than in the opposition 22.
Not enough creativity, only managing four tries in one outing, defeat to Bristol, with a backline regularly featuring the Premiership player of the season Niki Goneva, the sensational Sinoti Sinoti, ex England stand-off Toby Flood, and seasoned internationals Chris Harris and Josh Matavesi was a desperately disappointing return for a pool of exceptionally talented professionals.
That being said, it can’t always be about the style of play, the players must take utmost accountability for on-field performances, fine margins, mistakes, frustrating inaccuracy at the set-piece and open play were all major contributors. Senior players not able to hit the heights expected can’t be overlooked, either.
Dean Richards will be more than disappointed he couldn’t get more out of a deeply talented pool, as will head coach Dave Walder, a name Falcons supporters will hope can be a key component in rebuilding a style more akin to a high scoring league.
Next is the bittersweet rise of Mark Wilson. Tremendous on the international scene and almost a guaranteed name on Eddie Jones World Cup team sheet, the Falcons lost their key man for large parts of the season, and despite the Herculean efforts in the Autumns and Six Nations, Wilson showed no sign of a jaded body as every performance was as outstanding as the prior. It’s impossible to replace a man who brings so much during the eighty, and his presence off the field when the pressure was on is another issue the Falcons would have preferred not to have had to contend with.
Whilst new signings Johnny Williams and George McGuigan impressed early on, the club struggled to replace key parts of the crucial jigsaw, Nili Latu and the astronomically important Ally Hogg would be hard to replace, hindsight a harsh lesson in just how difficult that proved to be.
Mass quantity of injuries were another component, and whilst all teams contend with stretching their squad in a long, gruelling season, it does seem Newcastle suffered more than most, injured prop Jon Welsh confirming prior to the Northampton Saints defeat the squad had over 60 medical scans, at this stage last season, they hadn’t broken 30.
The most disappointing aspect from a Falcons perspective is the difficulty the club now has continuing attracting events such as the Champions Cup centrepiece and England fixtures to Newcastle, as well as the fantastic work it does in the community, as well as attracting new supporters, without a Premiership club.
Now a period of reflection will begin, a chance to understand who wants to move on, who needs to move on, and who would like to stay and push the Falcons back to the Premiership at the first time of asking. That may well include the director of rugby Dean Richards.
Top of the list will be Mark Wilson, fresh from a new four year deal, it may be better for both individual and club if a one season loan can be organised, allowing Wilson to continue his international aspirations, whilst the Falcons maintain their superstar, and relieve the wage bill that will naturally be stretched upon a drop to the second tier. The versatile back row will not be short of options.
Followed closely on that list should be Tane Takalua. The Tongan has been immense in the final stages of the season, an immaculate goal kicker, at just 27 years old, an opportunity to build the club around a man who clearly has a lot to offer would be a sensible move. Similar to Gopperth the last time the club were in the Championship, a marquee player with top class ability will be the difference.
Question marks will remain over the likes of Chris Harris, Gary Graham and John Hardie, will Scotland consider selecting players from The Championship? It remains to be seen. One thing we do know is that Scottish boss Gregor Townsend is a canny operator, this is an area those of a Northern English or Scottish persuasion should keep one eye trained upon.
The Falcons need a fresh approach on the pitch heading into the new season, but for now, after a period of sorrow, the club, management and players must dust themselves down, reassess and find a new strategy, taking inspiration from the refreshing Bristol Bears as the blueprint, centered around a young core of talent in Zach Kibirige, Santiago Socino, Adam Radwan, Trevor Davison, Jamie Blamire, George Wacokecoke, Calum Chick & Sam Stewart. A call to ex-Falcon Pat Lam for a chin wag and the bend of an ear might not be a bad place to start.
Champions Cup, Gallagher Premiership, RFU Championship, England, Bristol Bears, Leicester Tigers, Newcastle Falcons, Worcester Warriors
Written by: Morgan Lowrie
Follow: @MorganLowrie · @therugbymag