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'I want the most expensive rugby player, that's how fantasy it was'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dave Rogers/Allsport)

Ex-RFU boss Rob Andrew has recalled being at the forefront of the unprecedented recruitment drive that resulted in Newcastle signing stars such as Inga Tuigamala and guiding the Falcons to Premiership glory at the first attempt in 1997/1998. When professionalism arrived in the club game in England it tempted businessman John Hall, the owner of Newcastle United Football Club, to buy into rugby and go for broke in search of glory.


England out-half Rob Andrew was recruited from Wasps and he quickly became the go-between in getting numerous other high-profile names to sign for Newcastle. The club went on to finish second in National Division Two in 1996/97, securing them top-flight promotion, and it was in preparation for a first-ever Premiership season when Andrew was left in no doubt about Hall’s ambition for Newcastle to become champions.

Andrew had arrived at Newcastle in a player/director of rugby role and he revelled in how quickly he was able to attract star names to the club for that 96/97 second-tier season. “I went to Newcastle and signed up other players but nobody had a contract so I could go and talk to anybody,” he explained on the latest episode of Rugby Stories, the BT Sport podcast series.

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“I just said, ‘Do you want to leave your job?’ You might be a teacher, you might be in the police force, you might be a builder, I have got a contract here that is going to pay you to play rugby, something that you have probably done for the last decade for nothing. Do you want to get paid for it? Everybody was like looking at you as if you were mad. It was like, ‘Where do I sign?’”

The more Newcastle grew, the more ambitious its owner Hall became. Having signed England football striker Alan Shearer for a then world record fee to play at St James’ Park for United, Hall wanted Andrew to go and do the same thing at the rugby club.

“I signed up these guys, Dodie Weir, Gary Armstrong, Tim Stimpson, Pat Lam. Newcastle had just brought Alan Shearer from Blackburn back home, £15m in 1996, a world record fee back then. It was euphoria with Shearer coming home and I always remember John and his son Douglas saying to me we have got the most expensive football in the world playing for Newcastle, I want the most expensive rugby player to play for my club.


“That is how fantasy it was. I said, ‘I know who exactly that is. It’s Inga Tuigamala. He is playing at Wigan and wants to come back to union. I’ll go and have a chat with the Wigan chairman’. We bought him out of his professional contract and it cost us a few bob. It was absolutely fantasy rugby.”

That fantasy rugby led to Newcastle lifting the title at the end of their first Premiership season, a campaign that began with a bang in August 1997 when the Falcons went to Bath and won on the opening day of the season with Tuigamala scoring their first-ever top-flight try.

“Inga Tuigamala at the time was one of those dynamos really on the wing or in the centre, a battering ram but more than that as well because he had really soft hands and just the heart of a lion on the field,” added Andrew about the big unit whose signing by Newcastle was the biggest statement of all that the league’s new boys meant business. Sadly, the much-loved former All Blacks and Samoan international passed away last year at just the age of 52.

  • For the full Newcastle episode, check out BT Sport’s podcast series, Rugby Stories, part of the BT Sport Pods lineup of podcasts. Every Monday, Rugby Stories, presented by Craig Doyle, will spotlight and celebrate English club rugby history.


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