It was on a train last week to Manchester to see a specialist when it fully dawned on Toby Flood that the ramifications will be stark for England’s professional rugby landscape if Newcastle Falcons finish this season relegated to the Championship.
“It’s really important for us to be a part of the Premiership because of the knock-on effect,” said Flood to RugbyPass. “With Leeds no longer involved, our nearest club is in Manchester. I went down there to see a specialist last week and that is three hours on a train. It’s a long way to go if you want to watch high-class rugby, so to be in the Premiership is really important for the north-east.”
The surge in the sport’s popularity in the region isn’t lost on the 33-year-old rugby veteran who left Newcastle in 2008 to seek his fame and fortune with Leicester and Toulouse before returning home in summer 2017.
Rugby World Cup 2015 had boosted the game’s profile by staging matches at St James’ Park, a trend that Falcons have mirrored by annually playing a Gallagher Premiership game at the football mecca which is also due to play host to next month’s Champions Cup final between Leinster and Saracens along with an England Test match prior to the World Cup in Japan.
Those glamour fixtures are testament to the growing appetite for top-class rugby, but the north-east is now threatened with losing its fortnightly Premiership show window and stalling progress. That’s a worry for Flood.
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“Rugby has absolutely got bigger and that is one of the best thing ever to happen. The players here have put the club on the map and rugby is growing. Being an outpost up north, it’s really important to keep pushing rugby because it’s something that sits behind football and it forever will because of St James’ Park and what it means to football people.
“But we have a really impressive community department that works incredibly hard to push the rugby message and that’s really important. We have contacts with local clubs and they work incredibly hard to get it out there because they understand the impact of them making a positive message, of getting two or three kids really interested in rugby which brings their family into coming to a game.
What. A. Finish.
Leicester hold firm and claim a MASSIVE result at Newcastle.
The Tigers live to fight another day! pic.twitter.com/2EP7aCyzoK
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 12, 2019
“They are the little incremental gains that have a huge impact in terms of what we do, but if we drop down you will have to go all the way south to Manchester (to see the Premiership) and that is a huge gap.”
Flood’s awareness of the wider implications of relegation isn’t reflected in his thoughts on what the future might personally hold for him if Newcastle go down. Keeping upbeat about their three remaining games – a schedule that begins with Friday night’s visit to Kingston Park by Northampton – is the immediate priority.
“I don’t have any intention of changing and doing anything different. At this moment in time, to be honest I haven’t really thought about it because I’m not really letting it cross my mind. We will cross that bridge when it comes to it but because I’m hoping we will stay up, I’m going to try and keep myself in the realm of positivity and stay with the club as long as I can.
“Guys who are involved internationally, they may have to make a tough decision but personally I have not got that far ahead yet. I just want to crack on, keep my head down and see where we get to. There’s still a chance (to avoid relegation) and when there is hope you endeavour to get it right.”
This was something Falcons fell agonisingly short of achieving in their last outing, a devastating home loss to relegation rivals Leicester which enabled Tigers to pull eight points clear of Newcastle at the bottom, with Worcester sandwiched in between seven points ahead of 12th spot.
In his 15th season in the professional ranks, you’d imagine Flood is somewhat accustomed to handling the emotions of losing matches. However, the April 12 loss to his former club Leicester cut to the bone, a feeling exacerbated by his pocket being picked for a crucial try in a contest that grippingly went down to the wire.
Gameweek 1??9?? in the books, 3?? rounds remaining. Here's how the table looks.
What are your predictions for:
?? Top Four?
?? Relegation? pic.twitter.com/NpEhDndgVu
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 14, 2019
“That’s probably one of the worst,” he grimaced. “Just in terms of what it meant and how it went. It was a tough one. Personally and collectively we just couldn’t get it right and then when we did and got ourselves back in the game, we took ourselves out again, myself throwing an interception and other guys just making small errors.
“It was as frustrating as it can be and then it was made worse by Worcester winning (against Sale). No bones about it, we’re in a difficult situation at the moment and the only way to solve it is ourselves putting pressure on those teams above us. That’s basically what we have to do.”
If Newcastle are to fall through the cracks, it will be with regret. Having finished fourth last season, they weren’t expecting to find themselves in this sort of a pickle. However, it’s been their rotten luck to fall off the pace in an exceptionally competitive season.
There is every chance that even if they pick up a few wins during a run-in where they hope to add to their current 30 points, they could still go down in a fashion as frustrating as 2005 when Harlequins were chucked out despite a seemingly healthy tally of 38 points.
“It’s going to be very tight to that,” said Flood. “We’re talking about Wasps being in fifth and they are only three wins above us. They have more bonus points, so they have a bigger gap, but in essence it’s three victories.
“Then you look at the fixtures. Leicester we could have won. Wasps at home we should have won. Bristol away we were very close. Even Exeter at home we played really well. You look at those results and realise how tight the Premiership is.
“Last year we won those tight games and ended up fourth, and this year we just haven’t been able to get over the line in those games. It just feels you can’t snatch those victories you were snatching last year and that plays on the mental side of things,” continued the former England out-half who has an interesting take on the whole ring-fence the Premiership debate.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) April 23, 2019
“Ring-fencing, I have been a fan in the sense that it’s important for people who want to have an investment in a large organisation, an organisation that we all know loses money as there are very few profitable organisations in this league.
“But if you are going to ring-fence, you need to protect those teams below you. You need to review maybe every two to three years, look at it and say, ‘Hold on a minute, do we need to bring someone else up? Does someone else want to come up? Does a team at the bottom of the league for three years in a row need to be taken out of it?’
“You need to be very careful with ring-fencing being a closed book as you have to protect those teams below who want to come up and change it. But having spoken to quite a few directors of rugby and bits and pieces through my career, some teams are very happy in the Championship, some teams are very happy in National One.
“I know for instance the teams where I started, Morpeth and Alnwick, they’re very happy in the league they are normally in because if they get promoted or relegated, they either win every game if they get relegated or they lose every game if they get promoted. They quite like being in North-East Two or whatever it is because they will win some of their games, lost some of their games and it’s very competitive.”
A thriving grassroots is something that is important to Flood, who was one of Newcastle’s ambassadors at their Gallagher Premiership Train with your Heroes session with the Darlington Mowden Park under-18 girls. It brought the seasoned out-half right back to his own fledgling rugby days, training on the back pitch at Kingston Park as a nipper and memories of Jonny Wilkinson walking in the door of his school one afternoon.
Amazing to be at Kingston Park, the home of @FalconsRugby, after @MowdenPark Ladies U18s won our #TrainWithYourHeroes competition. Session led by #GallagherPrem stars @tobyflood, @mark_wils and captain, Will Welch pic.twitter.com/kvXsmHBDu5
— Gallagher UK (@GallagherUK) April 18, 2019
“I remember coming here and training on the back pitch with Dave Walder and Michael Stephenson when I was a kid. That was really good fun to do training sessions with those guys. Then Jonny Wilkinson, I remember he came to our school.
“The Falcons would send a player to a school and we somehow got Jonny. He came down and did two or three sessions. The impact of that was massive. To see him when he was at the peak of his powers at 21, 22, lighting up the world, that was hugely important.
“Likewise, with Dave and Michael, who were top players as well. You realise the impact of that and as adults now at 33, 34, we sometimes still talk about that. It’s important to still have memories of that time.”
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