Beware... Newcastle's David and Goliath act yet to meet its toughest challenge
It was not the finale to Newcastle Falcons’ season that neutrals up and down the country had hoped for.
After a spirited second half of the 2016/17 Aviva Premiership season, that almost saw Newcastle qualify for the European Rugby Champions Cup, the challenge was set for the club coming into this season to maintain that level of play and not drop back down into the relegation battle that had been an annual fixture of Falcons’ seasons in the recent past.
Well, Dean Richards’ men defied the detractors and naysayers, and not only did they not drop back down into the battle at the bottom of the table, they continued to take the scalps of the bigger and more established teams towards the Premiership’s summit. Their David and Goliath-inspired season culminated in a trip to the playoffs, a place that just a couple of seasons ago it seemed unthinkable that the Falcons could arrive at.
The fairytale was set. A trip to the home of the current champion Exeter Chiefs, with nothing to lose. A chance to shock all those watching and book a date at Twickenham in the Premiership’s showpiece event.
Nothing to lose, that is, until they did have something to lose.
It’s not that they were embarrassed in any way, as teams have gone down to the south-west and been beaten far more prodigiously on the scoreboard, it was more their inability to do anything, at all, about it.
It was a harrowing final 80 minutes of the season for Richards and his men who, through a combination of their own mistakes and the sheer swarming and suffocating nature of Exeter’s play, were unable to fire a shot at Sandy Park.
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If there was a theory that the Falcons had been keeping the powder dry in their Round 22 home loss to Wasps, they needn’t have bothered, such was the one-way nature of this contest. To say Exeter didn’t give Newcastle a sniff would be an understatement.
The first half bordered on one of the most dominant halves of rugby ever witnessed. The scoreline may have only read 16-0 to Exeter at the interval – and that was to the credit of the Newcastle defence – but the Chiefs boasted 93% territory, 368 metres made to Newcastle’s 10 metres made and the home side had only had to make nine tackles, to a whopping 149 made by Newcastle. Half the Exeter team hadn’t even had to make a single tackle in 40 minutes of rugby.
Stats without context can be misleading and they certainly don’t always decide games, but in this case, they were entirely representative of a match that saw Newcastle taken by the throat by Exeter, right from the opening kick-off.
The game did even up statistically somewhat in the second half, but the damage was long done by then, with Exeter having established a nice buffer of a lead and the Newcastle players having to suck in oxygen at all available times.
It was a savage and timely reminder of the work that still needs to be done by Newcastle, if they are to realise their ambitions and genuinely contend for the title in the seasons to come, but it shouldn’t detract from what has been an immensely successful season for the club from the north-east.
Newcastle defied expectations from Round 1 – a 35-8 thrashing of Worcester Warriors at Kingston Park – and shook off any assumptions that their loftier position in the Premiership hierarchy the previous campaign was a one-season wonder.
Under Richards’ guidance, the Falcons found a steel on the road that hadn’t previously been there, exemplified perfectly in their narrow away victories over Sale Sharks, Northampton Saints, London Irish, Gloucester and Bath, as well as slightly more rampant away wins over Harlequins and Leicester Tigers.
In fact, the only teams to deny Newcastle a win on the road in the Premiership this season were Exeter, Saracens, Worcester and Wasps. Those eight away wins were the most by any side in the competition, with even Saracens and Exeter having to settle for seven apiece.
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They took their fair share of plunder at the annual Premiership awards night, as you might expect, with Vereniki Goneva winning the Premiership Player of the Season award, as well as being joint top try-scorer, whilst Richards picked up the Director of Rugby of the Season gong.
A playoff appearance and awards weren’t the only highlights of the season, either, with a bumper crowd of 30,174 – a Newcastle record – turning up to St James’ Park to witness the Falcons’ 25-22 victory over Northampton.
This, rightfully, will be remembered as a season when Newcastle made the leap up the Premiership hierarchy, not for a one-sided semi-final appearance, but that poses a whole new set of challenges for the Falcons going into the offseason. Challenges, it’s likely, that will test the club sternly.
No longer are Newcastle considered plucky underdogs, despite their lack of financial firepower relative to some of the teams around them, they are now expected to compete. Expected to contend at the top of the table, whilst also featuring in the much more demanding Champions Cup.
A remarkable season has come to an end. First top-four finish in 20 years, Euro semi-final, Anglo-Welsh semi-final and so many amazing moments. Thank you for your outstanding support and good humour. See you next season!
— Newcastle Falcons (@FalconsRugby) May 19, 2018
The club’s squad will be stretched, they won’t be able to rest players in Europe and focus on domestic matters and fans, no matter how loyal, will be expectant. They will want that gap that currently separates Newcastle from Exeter and Saracens bridged or, at the least, reined in somewhat.
That, itself, is an unenviable challenge and one which many clubs with larger budgets, such as Leicester Tigers, Harlequins and Bath, have failed to accomplish in recent seasons, offering promise and challenge before falling back into the midtable of the competition. Even Wasps, who have maintained a similar standing with the pair at the top of the table, have come unstuck in the playoffs, unable to quite match the two most recent champions.
Does that mean that Newcastle’s hopes of their rise continuing unabated next season are doomed to fail?
One thing which certainly will aid Richards is the fact that Newcastle no longer seem to be haemorrhaging players each summer.
Key contributors such as Rob Vickers, Scott Lawson and Ally Hogg are retiring, admittedly, but the other players leaving are not leaving in spite of Newcastle’s wishes, they are players the club is content to allow to move on to pastures new and the core of the squad has been contracted up and retained.
Logovi’i Mulipola and George McGuigan have been brought in from Leicester to bolster the front-row, whilst powerful centre Johnny Williams arrives from London Irish, ready to give Newcastle’s midfield a new dimension, after Maxime Mermoz struggled with injury in his debut campaign on Tyneside.
They have also added English flanker Connor Collett, who has been making waves with North Harbour in the Mitre 10 Cup down in New Zealand, having risen swiftly through the ranks after heading south to play club rugby.
Is it enough to bridge that gap with the two finalists? Honestly, the answer is no, it’s probably not, but it does speak to the progress being made in the north-east.
As talented a director of rugby as Richards may be, he knows this is an ongoing process and not something which can be achieved overnight.
Consolidation is the priority right now.
Gloucester are improving under Johan Ackermann’s tutelage and Bath came on strong down the stretch, qualifying for the Champions Cup when many had written them off. Northampton will be welcoming in the vision and coaching IQ of Chris Boyd later this summer and Leicester are too good not to be in the mix for long. Harlequins are a wild card, too, and will likely be a very different prospect under their new coaching set-up, whilst Wasps will not meekly fall out of playoffs themselves.
There is no shortage of suitors for Falcons’ place in the top third of the competition, all of whom, worryingly, can outspend the Falcons.
And herein lies the challenge for Newcastle, straddling the divide between the contenders and the wannabes in the league, not wanting to allow the top teams to get away from them, whilst also having to see off the challenges of those who would steal their spot.
Coming up from the midtable sees teams operate with freedom and without pressure, whilst the glare of the spotlight from being a playoff side has blinded plenty of teams in seasons gone by.
Call it second season syndrome if you want or just put it down to how competitive the Premiership is outside of the top two, but the real test of the new look Newcastle Falcons will come in the 2018/19 season.
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