By Alan Dymock
THERE WILL undoubtedly have been roars of delight as Newcastle Falcons clambered out of the Championship at the first time of asking, but for one man watching Falcons’ 31-24 victory over Bedford Blues in the play-off second leg – winning with an aggregate score of 49-33 – there would have been a hefty sigh.
Director of rugby Dean Richards has done the job he was brought in to do. Having been out in the rugby wilderness following a three-year global ban for his part in the Bloodgate scandal in 2009, Richards’s first posting on his return was with a Newcastle team looking to bounce straight back up to the Aviva Premiership.
He has done it, but it was not easy.
That statement may seem surprising, considering that the regular season ended with Falcons 24 points better off than their nearest rivals in the Championship, Nottingham. That was no accident. They lost once to Bristol in April but spent the rest of the term bludgeoning every other team. Twice.
Powered by a big, ugly pack boasting the likes of Carlo Del Fava, Scott MacLeod and Ally Hogg and pushed by the boot of Jimmy Gopperth they were unstoppable in regular season action.
However, when they reached the play-offs something stuck. Richards has spoken about the nature of the league set-up, saying after his team secured promotion: “I am happy, yes, although I still think it is the wrong way to go up.”
He also said: “We have been in purgatory for the past three months, but we have had some good games in the knockout stages and are finally over that line.”
It was nervy. They lost their play-off semi-final first leg to Leeds 24-14, before turning the result round in the second leg, 15-6. This was after the club had announced a whole raft of new signings in anticipation of going up. Noah Cato and Adam Powell signed up to play immediately, but in the month before a ball was kicked in the play-offs Falcons had given contracts to Scott Lawson, Phil Godman, Fraser McKenzie, Mike Blair, Rory Clegg and Andy Saull for the 2013-14 season.
Those men will all play in the Premiership. They will do so without the educated right boot of Gopperth, though, as the New Zealander packs his bags and heads for Heineken Cup rugby with Leinster next season. Also gone is experienced Premiership loosehead Jonny Golding, who will pursue a career in business instead.
Next season should be interesting for Falcons, with their cabal of experienced internationals and young locals. Richards has the kind of measured approach that could suit a club newly promoted. There will be no song and dance; no grandiose claims. They will just truck on quietly, knowing that their owner has spoken of a long game based on sound business, marketing strategies and no splurges on big names from abroad.
One would not bet against Falcons staying up. If they do, though, the sigh would be much louder than the one released by Richards as his club saw out the job on Wednesday.
Find out who all the champions in England are with our grass-roots champions section, featuring more than 100 RFU league winners, in the July edition of Rugby World – on sale 4 June!Like Rugby World? Subscribe to the magazine for the latest comprehensive content.