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Two decades of Falcons memories

By Smithy Senior
December 22 2017

For something a bit different to read over the festive break, BBC Newcastle Radio summariser Ian Smith recalls his ups and downs with Newcastle Falcons over more than twenty years. Those who have enjoyed his commentaries over the years will know that he knows more about Newcastle Falcons than seems possible. Read on and you will understand why.

Monkey made me aware that the site needs articles to satisfy the providers and after all the help he has given me in posting broadcast information I offered to help in whatever way we could. The following article was written for the Legends game that took place ahead of the Rugby World Cup coming to the Toon in 2015 and I was encouraged to update it to today. It is obviously a personal perspective but as plod along doing my bit the memories are as vivid as if they happened yesterday.

On 26 August 1995, Vernon Pugh, the chairman of the International Rugby Board declared rugby union an "open" game and the professional era had arrived. In the North East of England Sir John Hall had a vison of creating a Newcastle Sporting Club and in September 1995 he bought Gosforth Rugby Club who were in the second division of English rugby, brought in Wasps & England fly-half, Rob Andrew as Director of Rugby and professional rugby had arrived on Tyneside.

The fact that the game was moving towards being professional was of no great surprise but the timing caught a lot of people off guard. To quote Rob Andrew “It was like the Wild West when the game went professional. No player had a contract and soon everyone was running around trying to sign us up. No one had a clue what we were worth. I was a chartered surveyor then working in London but within a few weeks I was on my way to Newcastle in what was a big leap into the unknown.”

I became one of the leapers when Dean Ryan and Steve Bates, Rob’s colleagues at Wasps who became his first signings for Newcastle, came to my office at the university and asked me to establish everything at the club under the first team. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my life changed from that point on.

Looking back, those early days are a period in my life that I remember with great fondness. We had a blank piece of paper, everything was new and we made it up as we went along. If it felt right we did it and if we weren’t sure it was right we also did it but shut our eyes and ears to the consequences.

One of my first memories was of sitting in Rob’s office every Monday morning to watch a VHS video of the weekend’s game and have a chat about it. That was our video analysis!! Every week there would be Rob, Dean, Batesy, fitness coach Steve Black, Nick Popplewell and me. Nobody was really sure why Pops was there but he always brought the doughnuts so nobody asked.

As Director of Rugby, Rob was very happy to spend Sir John’s money as he gathered a team of predominantly international players around him. That group won promotion to the Premiership in 1997, at the end of the first full season of professional rugby, and the following year won the premiership title at The Stoop on a wonderfully sunny Sunday afternoon.

Sir John had witnessed Newcastle Utd losing 2 – 0 to Arsenal in the FA Cup Final at Wembley on the Saturday but the following day tasted success as his Director of Rugby raised the premiership trophy.


Rob Andrew winning Falcons

The following Tuesday Inga the winger had a celebration party at his house in Wylam which was in full swing when three crates of beer could be seen moving along the top of the garden hedge. They stopped and a Kiwi voice was heard to utter the immortal words “I heard there was a party”. Maybe they were friends of someone there but legend has it that they had talked to some of the players after the game at the Stoop, heard that Inga was going to have a party and did what any good Kiwi would do and follow their nose. God alone knows how they found Inga’s house or where they slept but so many people stayed with Inga I am guessing three or four more would not have been noticed.

In the first full season of professional rugby in the Northern Hemisphere, 1996 – 1997, European rugby arrived and as Newcastle took their place in the premiership it was something that was really exciting. Over the years it has been fantastic to face the challenge of great teams including Toulouse, Perpignon, Stade Francais, Leinster, and the Cardiff Blues and in more recent times, although not in the big boys competition, it has been interesting to play rugby in the emerging nations of Italy, Spain, Romania and Russia.


Agen 97

I do smile when I think back to a visit to Agen in Central France in December 1997. In my role as Director of Rugby at Northumbria University I had been with the students in the European student’s cup in Toulouse and then travelled on to Agen where the Falcons were to play their European Shield game. Sir John’s love affair with rugby was on the wane, and after a rather poor display that saw the Falcons lose 12 – 9 on a cold wet day Sir John was on the war path. He was hell bent on going into the changing room and telling the players exactly what he thought of them.

A man for whom I have a great deal of admiration is Scottish prop George Graham. Now George was noted for having a bit of a short fuse and fitness guru Blackie sensed the fall out there might be if Sir John carried out his threat and George took exception!!

In a flurry of activity I was sent to guard the front door of the changing room and I think it was Mick Hogan that was sent to the back door to stop the boss getting in. He did not get in and harmony reigned as the Charter flight got everyone home to lick their wounds.

I could fill a book with my very vivid memories of the Falcons and my other rugby activity over the last 21 years but some things I clearly remember are:

1996    My first training session at the club

Meeting Paul MacKinnon and working with him and some great players. Hopefully we helped a few along the way.

1997    Nick Popplewell’s punch at Bedford that got him sent off

1998    The coach journey on the team bus from the hotel to the Stoop before the premiership winning game. Not sure if he was actually hungry or just nervous but Alan Tait needed FOOOD. All we could find was bananas!

            My Northumbria University team with a host of Falcons youngsters lose to Swansea University in the final of the BUSA competition at Twickenham

1999    The Cup Final against Wasps with our first academy players to make the step up being involved

2000    Taking a Falcons Under 21 team to New Zealand and being the warm up game to the All Blacks v Tonga in Albany Stadium, Auckland.

            My Northumbria University team with a host of Falcons youngsters beat Loughborough University in the final of the BUSA competition at Twickenham. I may have been a bit tiddly!!


Coaching England U19 Students, including three Falcons, to a win over their Scottish counterparts in Edinburgh ahead of England losing the Grand Slam on a dreek day.


England U19

2001    Beating Harlequins at Twickenham in the Powergen Cup final. Still not sure it was our line out!

            My Northumbria University team with a host of Falcons youngsters draw with Exeter University in the final of the BUSA competition at Twickenham but lose on try count.


Northumbria 2000

2002    Andrew Blades coming to Tyneside, A great coach and a top bloke.

12th October 2002, my first radio commentary as the Falcons won 19 – 12 in Grenoble

2003    Being in the dug-out at Headingley when Hall Charlton scored an injury time try against Leeds to win the game and keep up hopes of avoiding relegation

2004    Seeing the fantastic support inside Twickenham for the Powergen Cup Final against Sale Sharks and being in the winning changing room after the game.


Smithy Snr

The first of our youngsters leaves for pastures new as Hugh Vyvyen joins Saracens.

2005    Michael Stephenson leaves to join Bath and the academy gates were well and truly opened

2006    Sadness when Rob told me that he was leaving to take up his role with the RFU and happy when Fletch, another top bloke, got the chance to manage the club.

2007    The arrival of the 1000th All Black, Carl Hayman. At the time, allegedly the highest paid rugby player in the world and an indication of better times ahead.

Being team manager for Mark Laycock’s team that won the Middlesex 7’s at Twickenham


Middx Sevens celebrate

2008    The player’s reaction to the sacking of Fletch and Pete Walton. Toby Flood, Matthew Tait, Lee Dickson and Ben Woods leaving the Falcons and Matt Burke retiring due to injury.


Squad 2008

2009    Difficult days as the fall out continued and Jonny Wilkinson, Geoff Parling, Phil Dowson, Davey Wilson, Tom May leave the Falcons.

2010    Steve Bates getting sacked for the second time! One of the nicest men you could wish to meet.

            Publishing a book ”Rugby Union: The men who make the game”..

2011    A difficult season with 4 wins, only 23 points and avoiding relegation on point’s difference.

2012    Interviewing Gary Gold before and after every game he was in charge and utter despair at the fairy dust running out and relegation at Wasps, even though we won on the day. Not a good journey home!

2013    Relief at promotion at the first attempt. The defeat in the semi-final at Leeds caused considerable nail loss.

2014    Thank goodness for Worcester

2015    A plastic pitch, thank goodness for London Welsh and the hope of better times ahead.

Commentating on the three World Cup games played at St James Park for the RWC Radio World Feed with Tom May summarising and Dave fromEdinburgh pushing the buttons.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be describing international rugby from the home of “my team”.


RWCSt James

2016    Better times are put on hold and thank goodness for London Irish.

2017    Finishing 8th in the Premiership demonstrates a measure of progress.

Ahead of the 2017 – 2018 season Dave Walder was promoted to head coach and the evidence of an attacking threat is more consistently to be seen. John Wells as defence coach has instilled a defensive determination. We just look more organised and a difficult side to beat but are nowhere near being the finished article.

So where are we now and what of the future?

The Falcons sit at the top of both their European Challenge Cup and Anglo Welsh pools and they have had a great start to their Premiership campaign but the reality of where they are as a team has been driven home over the last three Premiership games with losses against Exeter Chiefs, Leicester Tigers and Wasps. However the progress that has been made should not be cast to the winds after defeats against three of the best sides in the premiership. Cool heads, belief and inner resolve will carry the team through the difficult points of the season to keep the upward trend of progress visible.

Under the leadership of Mark Laycock and James Pontin, in my opinion the best academy management and coaching team in the country, the academy is again starting to produce players that are pushing the first team shirt holders. As the person that started everything under the first team and helped in a small way to produce a string of high quality players I hope it does not appear pretentious to say it’s great to see it working again.


Mark Laycock

The community work done by the club is held as a standard for good practice and Mel McGee, her team and the players can’t get enough plaudits.

Planning permission is being sought to finally complete Kingston Park as a rugby Stadium. The word around the professional rugby fraternity was that Kingston Park reflected the team in that it felt like a stalled project and until the decision takers had confidence that progress was tangible and sustainable it would remain in that limbo state. It is an important statement by the club.

The announcement of a Premiership rugby game to be played at St James Park is something that we dreamt about in the early days of the Falcons under the ownership of Sir John Hall and his vision of a Newcastle Sporting Club. It’s taken a while but that dream of a game in the sporting cathedral that is St James Park is now going to be a reality and could be a major stepping stone in making The Toon not just a football city but a football and rugby city. If and when recurring pressure is put on the ability of Kingston Park to host “big” Falcons games it would be wonderful to have a tried and tested second home.

The willingness of the Football club to work with the City Council and the North East rugby community produced a memorable experience for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Those partners have worked together again and the hosting of the 2018 European rugby finals will continue to keep rugby in the minds of Geordies as they go about their daily business and the rest of the rugby world as they visit the City or see the images that go with such a high profile event.

I am actually unsure what more the club could be doing off the field to continue the rugby indoctrination process but this will all be for nothing if the on field results do not bring success.

All professional sports clubs desire success but success is cyclical. Once they achieve it, some learn to hold it in their hands before the inevitability of moving off the top happens. For others, success is like dry sand that runs through the fingers almost as soon as it is grasped. That brings an emotional reality where joy, despair, anger and relief are exhibited in quantities that reflect where in the cycle of success the club is at. The Falcons have had their days in the sun, have found it difficult to hold onto the sand but maybe with the tears that failure brings the sand is now in a state where it can be grasped.

Are we on the cusp of something special or will it all fall through our fingers once again?

During one of the difficult times I clearly remember being with the team and chatting late into the night before the game with a very wise man who said that we all have a choice. When it gets difficult you can throw in the towel and walk away or if it really is your club, you stick with it and do what you can to change and influence things.

I have now been with the club twenty one years and over those years I have met some fantastic people, some great characters and some who were, in all sorts of ways, quite challenging. I have experienced the full spectrum of emotions and the Falcons are still my club.

Having gone through all of that it would be daft to get off the bus when it appears to be heading in the right direction!

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Two decades of Falcons memories (IP Logged)
22/12/2017 13:21
What do you think? You can have your say by posting below.
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Re: Two decades of Falcons memories
dick g (IP Logged)
22/12/2017 13:41
I share so many of those memories. I now look forward to making many more. Starting with the win over Harlequeens.

Re: Two decades of Falcons memories
Bedlington Lad (IP Logged)
22/12/2017 14:41
dick g
I share so many of those memories. I now look forward to making many more. Starting with the win over Harlequeens.

Re: Two decades of Falcons memories
limpopo (IP Logged)
23/12/2017 11:15
Excellent piece, I share many happy and not so happy memories of those times.

Re: Two decades of Falcons memories
A tramp abroad (IP Logged)
23/12/2017 12:31
An excellent write up that brings back many memories. Thanks Smithy Senior.

Re: Two decades of Falcons memories
Stewart (IP Logged)
23/12/2017 20:37
Great stuff. So many memories. Thank you.

South Stander

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