Newcastle Falcons- Rugby
PUBLISHED: 11:59 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:22 20 February 2013
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The tables have turned in Newcastle's sporting Premiership status, as TV's Roger Tames reports
When professional rugby came to the region less than a couple of decades ago, nobody would have dared imagine Newcastle would have a team in rugbys Premiership but not footballs.
The Falcons emerged in the slipstream of Uniteds rocketing success under Sir John Halls stewardship, as the football clubs chairman played a major role in causing a revolution throughout the 15-man game.
Sir John signed up Rob Andrew to be the rugby clubs Kevin Keegan. Much of the credit for the Falcons top flight survival must go to the man the former England fly-half brought north to be his right hand man.
Rob and Kevin may have shared qualities of charisma and leadership. But nobody on the sporting planet would ever have confused Falcons number two Steve Bates with KKs right-hand man Terry McDermott!
The former Wasps scrum half is now, of course, the Falcons Director of Rugby and is much respected as a deep thinker on the game - not an accusation easily levelled at Keegans artful dodger, even though they both share a similar passion for their adopted clubs.
Bates did have a four-year spell away from Tyneside before returning to the fold after Andrews departure for England. Since replacing John Fletcher in the top job, hes had to steer the Falcons through as difficult a time as United, including an uncomfortable flirtation with relegation. Yet the experience never forced him to lower his sights or ambitions.
I remember sitting here with Rob and wanting to build a European Cup winning side, reflects the coach who steered Newcastle to promotion and the Premiership title in successive seasons.
When we were struggling during the past couple of seasons, that aspiration was still a big part of my motivation. Down at the bottom of the league, that goal was a considerable distance away but it was still something we were trying to achieve.
What I think weve done this season is start to push on again towards that ambition, although its difficult to say what the time scales are.
Certainly Bates has overseen a seismic change at Kingston Park this summer. Many of the big names have left, including the legendary Jonny Wilkinson, as 25 players departed in the close season with 18 recruited.
Its difficult to put into words just what Jonny contributed to this club, says the man who used to be the England legends teacher at school. He has been so influential to the way the team has grown and performed.
But he hadnt played much rugby for us during five years of injuries, and for a club of this size it was getting very difficult to keep taking the risk and justifying the expenditure. It was the right time for him to go. The change seems to have done him good and Im delighted for him.
Wilkinson wasnt the only fans favourite who left for France. England international Jamie Noon and mainstay of the club Tom May also moved on. It seemed the end of an era but Bates insists it was all in the name of progress on the field.
We took a fresh look at what was happening to the club and made a detailed assessment of what needed to change, he says. We couldnt keep supporting the number of players we were losing to international rugby. While we were still in the process of building the club, we needed a group of players who were going to be here all the time. We needed consistency.
Bates still talks in terms of the building process as he sits in a Kingston Park ground that has been developed from scratch. Yet its not the stands that have taken some constructing, its a club that has established a place among the long-standing elite of the game.
When I was playing, the top clubs were Leicester, Bath and Northampton - and they still are, says the 46-year-old, who was born in Wales. We are still a young club compared with those. You cant establish a level of support the same as the long established clubs overnight.
We have to work a little bit harder for our support. There are definite advantages for clubs in the South and Midlands, especially in terms of attracting away fans. Were still an outpost of the game.
Our supporters want to see success. But they also want to see effort from the players and a real commitment to this club. Our players do a fantastic job in the community but they do understand that ultimately, its their performance on the pitch that attracts people to come here.
I still believe theres a huge untapped market for rugby in the North East. If we get our act together on and off the pitch, we can still fill this place.
Steve Bates is too forward thinking to dwell on how much has been achieved since he joined the Falcons rugby crusade. It may even have taken the threat of relegation to make the region appreciate how important top flight rugby has become to the region.
Lets get Newcastles football team back to their own Premier League, then maybe we can return to attacking that European dream on two fronts.
Newcastle Falcons have put rugby on the agenda in a region where soccer is still the biggest sporting passion. What can our professional football clubs learn from the players and supporters of the Falcons? Have your say here.