Comment: Newcastle Falcons beginning to soar

Date published: January 9 2017

There aren’t too many things that kindle a northern hemisphere rugby fan’s excitement more than the arrival of a New Zealander coach at their respective club (or region or province).

With them comes the prospects of free-flowing, expansive rugby, the adoption of the All Blacks-perfected 2-4-2 forward system and a valuable enticement to Super Rugby’s want-away Kiwis when recruitment season kicks into gear.

Now, the basis for those first two factors involves putting New Zealand’s rugby culture on a pedestal that frequently goes beyond honest appraisal and borders on unrealistic hero worship.

That doesn’t, however, diminish the positive effects we have seen from a number of Kiwis – or coaches who have learnt their trade in New Zealand – who have recently taken up coaching positions in the northern hemisphere.

Todd Blackadder and Tabai Matson have had a more than stabilising influence on Bath, whilst Aaron Mauger’s arrival at Leicester last season was applauded and celebrated even more exuberantly once Tigers recorded an 18-try improvement on their tally from the previous season.

Pat Lam is another coach steeped in Kiwi rugby culture and who did what many seemed unthinkable just a few short seasons ago, guiding Connacht to the PRO12 title last year in a season-long display of high-tempo rugby, which ranged from tantalising at its dullest, to mesmerising at its brightest.

We are quick to praise the impacts these men have on their sides and rightfully so. But then where is the nationwide praise for the Newcastle Falcons coaching staff?

Under the stewardship of Dean Richards, a man whose rugby legend was built on the mud, sweat and blood of the Welford Road pitch rather than the open expanses of Super Rugby, Newcastle have, quietly, become a mid-table team in the Premiership.

On the surface that may not sound something to especially celebrate, but given the financial constraints Falcons operate under and their seemingly perennial battle against relegation, it is a very significant step forward in their development.

The trio of John Wells (head coach), Dave Walder (attack) and Micky Ward (forwards), just like Richards, won’t go down as the most aesthetically of pleasing players in their respective days – do not take that as an indictment of their effectiveness – but again, just like Richards, they are proving to be coaches for whom the mantra of “do as I say, not as I did” is seemingly strong.

The new-found ambition of Newcastle was clear to see in their last two matches, the first an agonisingly close loss to Premiership and Champions Cup contenders Wasps, the second a resilient victory over playoff-chasing Bath.

With a strong set-piece foundation laid by Wells, Ward and lineout coach Scott Macleod, Falcons have the muscle to contest the tight game and are building the structures to play at a tempo on their fast Kingston Park surface that many other teams can’t live with.

Newcastle may not be playing the full-on 2-4-2 structure of the All Blacks, whereby two pods of two forwards try to keep as much width as the game allows, but they are utilising their big men in the wide channels. Particularly against Bath, a 2-5-1 structure was evident in the first half, with Will Welch and Scott Lawson working together as one pod, usually on the openside, and Opeti Fonua positioning himself on the opposite side of the pitch.

A look at the structure Newcastle frequently employed against Bath during phase play

As Newcastle chased the game in the second half – quite successfully – the structure got slightly lost, but they used it to good effect in the opening 40 minutes and it is something that is only likely to further improve when Nili Latu returns from injury in the coming weeks.

Impressive academy graduates Will Witty and Callum Chick, both of whom are good ball-handlers, would add to its effectiveness with more playing time, whilst former Kenyan Sevens representative Joshua Chisanga is another name to keep an eye on as Falcons get more comfortable with this style.

With the foundations to play wider laid, arch-playmaker Juan Pablo Socino has come into his own, gelling superbly with fast-rising fly-half Joel Hodgson. The Argentine has started all 13 of Newcastle’s Premiership games so far this season and has been on the field for all but eight minutes of those matches, offering an extremely effective creative option at second receiver, or allowing Falcons to split their backline and spread the defensive field as much as possible.

Alongside Hodgson, Mark Wilson and Marcus Watson, Socino has taken his level of play to a higher level this season and should be at the forefront of any player of the season discussions, albeit with nine games and plenty of twists and turns still to go in the regular season.

It’s the play of those four, among others, that has seen Newcastle record the second most defenders beaten in the Premiership, as well as the second most passes in the competition, with the club not only finding ways to control possession, but also to ensure they are able to do something proactive with the ball when they do have it.

The 24-22 victory over Bath this past weekend, which saw Newcastle fight back from a 12-point deficit, lifted Falcons to sixth in the table and though they dropped to ninth once all games had been played, they are just one bonus point win away from moving as high as fifth in the table.

Having finished the 2015/16 season with a tally of five wins, 34 tries, zero try bonus points and 27 points, Newcastle have already amassed – in just 13 games – six wins, 26 tries, two try bonus points and 29 points this season. As things stand, they are on pace to finish the season with 10 wins, 44 tries, three try bonus points and a total tally of 49 points.

This upsurge in on-field performances has clearly had a galvanising effect on Newcastle’s fanbase, with their Premiership attendances not dipping below the 6,000 mark since their opening game of the season, a 19-17 win over Sale Sharks.

After recording an average attendance of 6,472 in the 2015/16 season, Falcons are averaging crowds of 6,731 so far this season, with big-draw home games against Northampton Saints, Gloucester and Saracens still to play.

With the prospect of Champions Cup qualification coming into focus and relegation battling falling by the wayside, fan interest in the Falcons could and should continue to grow as the season marches on.

Newcastle are far from the finished article but their progress under Richards this season has been clear for all to see.

They lose their width a little too quickly when inside the 22, becoming predictable for defences to deal with, and the accuracy of the final pass is often slightly off, which all adds up to a team that is relatively easily turned over when close to the try line. It is certainly something which cost them in single-score losses to Leicester, Worcester and Wasps this season.

It also an explanation as to why, despite all their attacking endeavour and effective build-up play, Newcastle are still only the ninth most potent try scorers in the Premiership this season.

That said, the work Walder has done with Newcastle as an attacking group, not to mention academy manager Mark Laycock who also operates as a skills coach, has the team looking unrecognisable – in a positive way – to anything we have seen in the North-East since the days of Jonny Wilkinson guiding them to their solitary Premiership title in 1998.

The real test of the growing optimism among Newcastle fans will occur in the coming months when the club’s retention of current players and recruitment of new signings for the 2017-18 season will become public knowledge and it’s an area where they have struggled in previous years.

Many home-grown players at the club feel they have to leave to warrant serious consideration for England, whilst the club also operates on a smaller budget than most of its Premiership rivals. Convincing the Hammersleys, Chicks and Wittys of the club that they can achieve their domestic and Test ambitions at Newcastle will be key and with impressive back-rowers Wilson and Welch both signing long-term deals, the outlook is at least more positive than it has been in recent years.

With Richards and his coaching staff leading the club forward on the pitch this season, a strong end to the season away from the pitch and in the boardroom may be all that stands between Newcastle and the club beginning to realise its potential in the top half of the table next season.

Richards’ coaching career will always be tarnished by what occurred in his final season at Harlequins but, slowly but surely, he is repaying his debt to the sport by giving rugby union a stable and sustainable future in the north of the country.

by Alex Shaw