It has been a season to forget for Dean Richards and his charges in the north-east.
After an arduous start to the campaign, that saw them host Saracens, Exeter Chiefs and Wasps – who were still functioning at a prominent level at that time – in their opening three home fixtures, Newcastle Falcons found themselves rooted to the bottom of the table, a position which they have not since been able to vacate.
There was plenty of talk that results would pick up after that particularly challenging early sequence, but unfortunately for Richards and co., that simply hasn’t happened, with most moments of joy for Falcons this season coming in the Heineken Champions Cup. In Europe, Newcastle have seen off French powerhouses Toulon and Montpellier, albeit with both teams struggling this season, but reasons for elation in the Gallagher Premiership have been few and far between.
They have just three wins from their 14 games so far, with a narrow win away at Worcester Warriors in Round 4, a home victory against Bath in Round 9 and a tight win at Franklin’s Gardens against Northampton Saints in Round 10 the lone moments to bring cheer to the Falcons faithful.
Newcastle have been competitive, though, and their ability to pick up losing bonus points has kept them in touch with the teams above them. They are still nine points adrift of both Worcester and Bristol Bears, however, and time is beginning to run out for them to string together a run of results that can give them a fighting chance of avoiding relegation.
That run, realistically, needs to begin this weekend, when Falcons take on Worcester at Kingston Park in a match that can genuinely be described as a 10-pointer at the bottom of the table. It sets in motion a critical three-round stretch for Newcastle.
Six days after that clash, Falcons head to the Ricoh Arena to take on an out-of-sorts Wasps, a place which Sale Sharks last week showed to be anything but a fortress at the moment, before finishing up on the 23rd of March against those same Sharks at Kingston Park.
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The game against Worcester this weekend speaks for itself in importance, whilst the contests with Wasps and Sale are both winnable games. Away trips to Saracens and Gloucester in the final five rounds of the campaign are unlikely to offer too much salvation, although a home fixture with Bristol on the final day of the season is particularly salivating, but only if Newcastle can close the gap in the coming weeks.
The struggles this season have been a stark reality check for Falcons, who were flying high and taking scalps throughout the 2017/18 campaign, but the side is not devoid of talent or reason to be hopeful in their bid to avoid the drop.
Mark Wilson is currently on England duty and will miss the games against Worcester and Wasps but could add vital impetus when the club take on Sale, as well as down the stretch, if Newcastle can move themselves into a position within touching distance of their relegation rivals.
Wing Zach Kibirige has been enjoying more opportunities of late and has shown his scintillating ability with ball in hand, including a couple of tries against Exeter at the weekend. He has added a speed dimension to Newcastle on the outside that could yet prove vital, with it plausible that points difference or a last-minute intercept try to grab a losing bonus point, could prove decisive in the relegation battle.
?? @ZachKibirige has the need for speed ??
? The @FalconsRugby greyhound is on fire at the moment ?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) February 26, 2019
Injuries in the front row continue to dog the club, but elsewhere they are beginning to welcome players back from injury stints, with Johnny Williams one notable recent returnee. The inside centre had been in impressive form to start the season and after missing two months with a knee injury, offered a couple of moments of ability against Exeter. As he gets more playing time into his legs, he could prove to be a major influence in this three-round block of fixtures.
The question for Richards and Falcons will be whether or not they can piece everyone together into a cohesive group in time not only to be competitive over the next three rounds, but also to try and pick up points where possible in the final five rounds.
One of the more notable critiques of Newcastle this season has been their inability to finish off opportunities when they have presented themselves. Whether through a lack of awareness or composure, two things which a tough run results-wise can create, Falcons have not been the clinical side that they were last season. They are creating the opportunities but a lot of tries, points and ultimately wins have gone begging this season, despite being within reach.
If the likes of Kibirige, Williams and Mulipola can help give Newcastle the spark this weekend against Worcester, things could begin to turn around quickly for the side from the north-east.
A win at home to Worcester, if they can deny the visitors any sort of bonus point, would cut the deficit at the bottom of the table to five points. Given Worcester have an advantage in matches won and points differential, that five-point deficit would realistically not be bridgeable in one game, but it would bring confidence to the group. If Newcastle can win the game with a bonus point of their own and cut the deficit to four points, then it does just become a potential one-game swing keeping them at the bottom of the table. Likewise, if Bristol are stopped by Gloucester at Ashton Gate on Friday, they also come into this equation.
If Newcastle win on Sunday, they head into their match with Wasps – who will likely be without Joe Launchbury, Nathan Hughes, Brad Shields and Elliot Daly – full of confidence and less impacted by international call-ups. Momentum is so often talked about in terms of the Guinness Six Nations, but as the Premiership season begins to wind down and the number of games left to play dwindles, it can also be an extremely significant factor in this competition.
The next three rounds of the Premiership calendar could well decide the hard-fought relegation battle this season and there are few fixtures as intriguing as the one at Kingston Park on Sunday.
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