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FEATURE Alex Codling: 'The word grind winds me up - we are blessed to do what we do'

Alex Codling: 'The word grind winds me up - we are blessed to do what we do'
8 months ago

Alex Codling is a 6ft 5ins hurricane of energy, so powerful that simply speaking to him just about blows you off your feet. He talks with the cadence of a careering steam train. He thinks of his players as surrogate children. While some coaches communicate in corporate riddles, Codling’s rhetoric is both authentic and convincing.

It needs to be. For after a coaching odyssey which has taken him across England, Northern Ireland, Wales and France at every level from school to international, that Codling hurricane has now struck Newcastle.

The Falcons have the smallest budget in the Premiership. As clubs collapsed like falling buffalo, they refused to be drawn into the financial arms race which sowed the seeds of doom for their counterparts. There is an obvious risk to this should results tail off, supporters grow weary and sponsors begin questioning their investment, but Newcastle have a track record of punching above their weight.

Codling has worked at a huge volume of clubs, including Harlequins, where he also played (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“It’s a brilliant club and region, so vibrant,” Codling says. “The people here are amazing. They care, and the connection with the community is enormous. It has working-class roots and they identify with hard work in the players.

“We have a new coaching group, a young squad. It’s tough, but I’m an adrenaline junkie – I love a challenge.”

For a decade, another immense presence bestrode Newcastle rugby. Dean Richards was its towering figurehead. When he stepped down a year ago, Falcons promoted from within, elevating long-time head coach Dave Walder to the director of rugby role. Nine months later, Walder was gone, reportedly unhappy at the club hierarchy and his lack of influence on recruitment.

“They let me get on with the rugby,” Codling says of those above and around him. “That’s precisely what I want.”

The analysts were in the pool swimming with the trophy like a float at seven in the morning at the hotel.

What Newcastle want is a fresh voice. Codling is certainly that. The former England lock arrived this summer after winning the ProD2 with Oyonnax, one of the most ferociously tough leagues in the sport. He oversaw a statistically formidable set-piece and maul, as well as the team’s defence, under head coach Joe El Abd. His squad, like Newcastle, embarked on back-warping bus journeys from their mountain home near the Swiss border every other weekend. He sees parallels with Falcons in the brotherhood they forged and the mentality they sculpted.

“When we won promotion in Toulouse, we had a nine-hour bus journey back to Oyonnax. There were more than 4,000 people waiting for us at the stadium. The analysts were in the pool swimming with the trophy like a float at seven in the morning at the hotel. They are just nuts. The passion and joy they had when they won will live with me forever.”

It is this culture he yearns to foster at Newcastle, whose reputation as rugged, abrasive and horribly tough to beat in their blustery Kingston Park stronghold is well established. They have thrived, too, on their status as England’s northernmost Premiership club, an identity built on graft, without the coin or glamour of the London teams, and a quiet grievance at being underestimated by those beyond their four walls.

“True North is our mantra from a geographical perspective and the community we represent,” Codling says. “I’ve changed it a bit this year around the ‘true’ part. What’s the true version of a Newcastle team and a Newcastle community? We are unique. There are things we can do here which we couldn’t if I was at a London club. It’s important we identify and use that.

Codling was capped by Sir Clive Woodward on England’s 2002 tour of Argentina (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“It’s a bit like Oyonnax, we were unique, stuck around a load of mountains, nowhere near any other club, so you have to find your own little thing you tap into.

“The objective is to have a band of men who will fight and stick in together. We will go on long journeys every week and you’ve got to embrace those and make those as fun as you can because ultimately, we spend more time together than we do with our families.

“We will spend 45, 46 weeks of the year together. I hear this word ‘grind’ all the time and it winds me up. It’s not a grind. We are blessed to do what we do.”

Players in the throes of an endless pre-season may have something to say about that. But Codling has kept the environment as light and dynamic as possible. He invented a Monopoly board for the town of Oyonnax and has created a Newcastle version too; players answer questions about their region and their game plan to move around the board. There have been quizzes on lineout calls, weekly competitions and prizes to be won. He set up an ‘origin’ pre-season fixture, splitting the squad into a north and south team and attracting around 2,500 spectators.

You might as well have been in the studio with Jeremy Clarkson. When you do theming, you try and make it as lifelike as possible.

“I’ve always been big around prizes and recognition. Some boys will win tickets to the Premier League darts in Newcastle in February. The boys who won the origin game went to the restaurant Gaucho.

“We put them into the four kingdoms of the northeast they’ve come from – Tyne and Wear, Durham, Cumbria and Northumberland – and the new boys get allotted a kingdom. That’s been massively bought into by the players. We’ve created a real competitiveness and cohesiveness, and we’ve done things with a charity and community element, because we want to represent these people in the right way.

“We did Who Wants to be a Millionaire as though we were in the studio – Steve one of the analysts did an unbelievable job. All the questions were based around Newcastle and the northeast, with buzzers, 50-50, ask the audience; phone a friend was one of the coaches at the back of the room. You might as well have been in the studio with Jeremy Clarkson. When you do theming, you try and make it as lifelike as possible.”

Innovation has always been a Codling trait. He has coded and compiled a private database of thousands of set-pieces he calls his ‘lineout jukebox’. But the pastoral rides alongside the technical.

“I want to create a caring environment. I don’t want that to come across too soppy, but I care about the players. Part of my role is to develop them as people, not just rugby players.

“I don’t want them to have regrets when they get to my age: ‘I could have done this’ or see somebody else in their age group go and play for England or the Lions when they didn’t make the sacrifices. Once it’s too late, it’s too late.”

Diminutive Argentine flyer Mateo Carreras has lit up Kingston Park since joining Newcastle with a host of compatriots (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

All this is great, but what about the product on the pitch? There is no escaping the fact Newcastle have limited spend and thus, limited depth. The club has always prioritised harvesting diamonds from its broad catchment area. One of them, Callum Chick, a proud son of Ponteland, is their new captain and the visceral embodiment of Falcons DNA.

Close to 20 new players joined the squad this summer, with more still heading through the exit door. They have added a fifth Puma to the books in Eduardo Bello, the giant prop. Argentines have sparkled in Newcastle recently with blockbuster wing Mateo Carreras, currently bamboozling defenders at the Rugby World Cup, the highest-profile success story.

“Carreras and Adam Radwan are heroes up here,” Codling says. “The Argentineans fit in really well at Newcastle because they are tough, very hard-working, get on with it, and are very family-oriented. They’re a community within a community. You can see how much they love the club and want to help the team. They know what good looks like and what international rugby looks like. I’ll often ask their opinion and they’ll tell me straight.

“You wouldn’t believe the shape Callum Chick is in. I said to him, if he was my son, I’d be unbelievably proud of him.

“There’s a lot of competition. There are boys who will come from left field. There are seriously talented young players. One who will really come through is (full-back) Ben Redshaw. He trained with England out in France in preparation for their Argentina pool game. He is 18 years old. I put his name forward, but they wanted him anyway. Ben Stevenson is another, he went out to England the following week. Big future. There are some gems.

“The short term is around new style of play, young squad, trying to get the connection amongst the group. We’ve got different age brackets, new recruits, the way the days are run is very different to what they were used to. Longer term it’s around connection with universities and schools, getting people in, getting coaches coming in, but that will take time. The boys have embraced everything but the challenge will come when we start playing.”

And what of Codling himself, the ultimate energiser. Do the batteries never wane when one gives so much individual effort to a collective cause?

“You know you are low on energy at times, but that doesn’t matter when I’m away from the players. You are a bit like an electric car. You whack the charger in, get up and get ready to go again. That’s how you have to be. I embrace it.”

The Premiership campaign begins on Saturday afternoon at The Rec. Bath, armed with riches and glamour and international pedigree, are first up. In the battle of the budgets, it’s a gross mismatch. But sport is not decided by spreadsheets. In the long months ahead, passion, originality and togetherness will shape Newcastle’s season.

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