Michael Farrow's sports blog

A collection of new and old writings

…on Newcastle Falcons’ slow decline and the southward drift of the Aviva Premiership

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Rob Andrew celebrates the 97/98 Premiership title

The most hated man in English rugby celebrates Newcastle's only Premiership title in 1998.

Another English Premiership season and it’s another relegation battle for the Newcastle Falcons. The early pace-setters of the professional era have been in decline for several years and thus it is little surprise that the club that escaped the drop last season by points difference are now staring the abyss in the face.

When you consider market forces and the right-sizing of clubs since the game was declared open in August 1995, it’s hardly a surprise to see the boom-and-bust of certain clubs pumped up by the financial steroids of their initial backers. The scramble and confusion of the first few years of professionalism are without par in the sports world and possibly only comparable to the economic shock therapy that saw the collapse of the Russian economy and the rise of the oligarch.

Looking back now, we have to look at the Premiership and realise what it actually is. A team like Newcastle is essentially a rugby franchise, as flagrantly commercial and contrived as the Miami Marlins or the Toronto Raptors, who bought their place at the top table at the expense of steady clubs from the amateur era that did not have the cash on hand to compete.

While John Hall’s takeover created the first professional rugby union club and brought instant success with promotion to the Premiership followed immediately by winning it, it was not based on a solid foundation but on a decent second division club. He changed their colours and their name for his Newcastle Sporting Club project and ignored the heritage of Gosforth rugby club. Once his Sporting Club project fell apart, showing its ludicrous opportunism for what it was, Hall inevitably moved on. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t been around?

Given Dave Thompson, Hall’s successor, has plead poverty since major club sponsor Northern Rock were nationalised, it’s hardly any wonder that the Falcons are moving in ever-decreasing circles. Unfortunately for them, the RFU’s professionalisation of the second-tier seems to be working and, despite its ludicrous months-long playoff format, it has produced two teams who have thus far avoided relegation. While Worcester haven’t pulled up trees this season, Exeter look to be going from strength-to-strength and have got themselves into the playoff race.

It seems to be epidemic across the north. Professionalism crippled the giants of the amateur era. Leeds have tried to make a go of it, playing at Headingley under sweetheart terms and, for a period, even merging their off-field activities with the more-popular Leeds Rhinos. However, it has long since been clear that they’re the third-biggest sport in a city where there’s only room for one and two. Sale were in danger of going out of business in 2000 until Brian Kennedy saved them and, according to an interview in 2006, he sunk around £30m into Sale in the first six years . Kennedy, arguably as much of an opportunist as John Hall, will leave Edgeley Park to share the City of Salford Stadium with Salford City Reds after the summer. With that level of backing and in a new fashionable stadium right next to the M60, the Sharks are likely to have enough to stay in the top flight but pretty soon, they’ll be the Premiership’s only Northern club.

A major component in the Premiership’s southern drift is just how cut off clubs are in the North. Unfortunately, rugby league’s heartlands get in the way. It cuts off the North East from the Midlands. Conversely, union pens in league and stops it from expanding its core area. While North Yorkshire and the North East is a union area and has its decent clubs – Blaydon, Tynedale and Wharfedale to name a few – none are in big towns and the lack of any derby games means that even for a relatively local game, Newcastle’s opponents are 2 ½ hours away. It feels like Newcastle can no longer pay their way and they only could in the past because of what Sepp Blatter would call financial doping.

Without a sugar daddy, they’re sitting ducks for relegation. Of the clubs looking to replace them from the Championship, the most northerly is Leeds and they’re currently outsiders in the playoffs. More likely would be the ascendancy of perennial yo-yo team Bristol, second tier stalwarts Bedford or maybe even the ambitious Cornish Pirates who, in partnership with the Cornwall Council and Truro City FC, are looking to build a 10,000-seater stadium three miles east of Truro, though some 24 miles from their original home in Penzance. If the hole in the Newcastle’s business plan is big right now, it will be even bigger come the end of May.

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Written by Michael Farrow

March 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Posted in Rugby Union

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