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Basement battle springs into life

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'We actually have to start getting some wins' - what life's like in the Premiership dogfight

At last it’s over, the enormous 40-day new year hibernation in between Premiership games. Only the 2019 summer off-season will have a longer break in between matches than what we have experienced following the final whistle blowing at the Ricoh on January 6 and the kick-off whistle sounding at Ashton Gate and Kingsholm tonight.

European and Premiership Cup fixtures have been the focus the past five weekends, but the league now comes roaring back into fashion and will focus minds over the next four weekends.

There are multiple areas of intrigue. Just four points separate the duelling top two. Next is the nine-point log-jam that contains eight more teams on the ladder. And then comes the pair of cellar dwellers, the relegation battle where only four points separates bottom from the safety of 11th place.

The trapdoor is the league’s hottest topic. Premiership club owners are seeking RFU talks to ring-fence the tournament and put an end to the annual basement battle where the worst team is send packing to the Championship.

Delivering long-term financial sustainability for professional rugby in England is their stated key objective and an update is due on April 9. However, all that backroom politicking is of no use just now to the likes Newcastle and Worcester who are duking it out down in the basement.

(Continue reading below…)

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The clubs will meet at Kingston Park on March 3 in what will likely be a delicious Sunday roast of a collision. But there are two rounds of matches before that summit to alter the current dynamic that has the four-win Warriors perched on 21 points, one win and four points better off than the Falcons whose fourth place finish last term is now but a distant memory.

Worcester are at Harlequins and host Leicester before they visit England’s north-east. Newcastle, meanwhile, have daunting away days at Bath and Exeter before they host their must-win match against their fellow strugglers. Some wins here and they could drag the likes of Bristol and others into the end-of-season fight for survival which both clubs are very familiar with.

Glance at the finishing positions over the last six seasons and you will find either Worcester or Newcastle occupying the table’s 11th spot. That is admirable stickability even if they have each slipped up once, Newcastle relegated in 2012 and Worcester suffering likewise in 2014.

Given the preference, Newcastle midfielder Chris Harris would prefer if his club wasn’t slugging it out down the rear. It was felt Falcons had come of age last season, finishing up with 14 wins in 22 matches, featuring in a league semi-final at Exeter and qualifying for a first Champions Cup appearance since a 2005 quarter-final against Stade Francais.

However, their old inconsistencies have since returned, plunging them into their latest fight for their future. “There has been a bit of a confidence thing going on at the club,” reckoned Harris, the Scottish international who scored against Italy in the Six Nations at the start of February.

“We weren’t playing badly at the start of the season, we just weren’t getting the results. That led to a bit of a confidence knock and it just spiralled, but it has got to the point now where we have got to park that and kick on. We are still showing we can play some good rugby and it’s about getting that consistency for 80 minutes and walking away with the victories.”

Has the experience of juggling rare Champions Cup involvement with league commitments hindered? “No, I don’t think so. There was a bit more rotation in that European block but no, I don’t think that has had an effect on it at all because you still go out to win whether it is the Challenge Cup or the European Cup. Nothing changed there.”

Newcastle going down would look bad for the RFU business of spreading the rugby message around the country. Interest in England’s north-east has been growing since it hosted a share of 2015 World Cup matches.

Next May’s Champions Cup final in the Tyneside city has already been declared a sell-out, England are due to play a Test there against Italy next September, while the Falcons themselves have got into on the big-game action, drawing a 30,174 attendance to St James’ Park last March, a venue experiment they are repeating with their March 23 fixture against Sale.

This increased appetite for rugby is putting added pressure on the club to stay afloat in the Premiership and not suffer the catastrophe of relegation and a return to the Championship wilderness.

“Rugby is growing and growing and we owe it to the area, to the club and the fans to start putting some victories in,” accepted Harris.

“We’re at the stage now where we are very much aware of our league position. We are looking at this next block of four games looking to pick up as many victories as we can, but you have to take it week on week and Bath away is the first target.

“We’re going down to get something out of that and we then have got Exeter away, two tough fixtures but two fixtures we have to give a good go at.

Chris Harris scores against Northampton in the Premiership Cup last weekend but tries in the league are needed if Newcastle are to avoid relegation (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

“It’s just trying to get us to focus on ourselves, to get back to enjoying rugby because you can’t let the pressure get to you to much as you start playing within yourself. We’re just looking at how we’re playing the game and where we’re going wrong, putting those wrong parts of the game right.

“Relegation does keep everything interesting. There is more pressure on you to perform when there is relegation but that is just the way the league is. There is nothing we can do about that at the minute, but it does make it especially more interesting for the spectators and there is more pressure on teams at the bottom to be putting in performances.”

Harris was one of the main beneficiaries of Newcastle’s improvement last season, his form catching the eye of Gregor Townsend. The 28-year-old has gone on to make seven appearances for Scotland and while he hopes to add to that with a recall for next weekend’s trip to Paris, he would like go there on the back of a club result at Bath as he knows time is running out on the Falcons to spread their wings and lift themselves off the bottom.

“There is loads of time (Newcastle have 10 matches remaining) but the weeks go by pretty quick and we have addressed that in the team. We can’t week in week out keep coming in saying ‘we have to get a win boys’. We actually have to start getting some wins and that starts this week.”

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'We actually have to start getting some wins' - what life's like in the Premiership dogfight