Having finished eleventh in the table at the end of last season and with a team devoid of confidence and propped up by journeymen, the prospects for the Falcons’ 2016-17 season were not that bright. Come New Year, this prognosis has been turned on its head with Dean Richards’ team comfortably ensconced in mid-table having beaten Harlequins, Northampton and Gloucester in the first-half of the season. Although still leaky in defence, on the attack this Newcastle outfit look superior to anything seen at Kingston Park in the last five years with flying scrum-half Sonatane Takalua, back-row bruiser Mark Wilson and new signing Vereniki Goneva looking particularly impressive for the Falcons. In addition, they already have two try bonus points, two more than they achieved during the entire 2015-16 season.
This has come about due to a variety of factors. Firstly, the coaching ability of Dean Richards, despite run-ins with the rugby authorities, has never been doubted, although it has taken him longer than expected to reform the northern team. In his defence, Newcastle is a relative rugby union backwater, not particularly attractive to flashy foreign imports and lacking the allure to convince existing talismen (i.e. Dom Barrow) to stay. In their place, inexperienced and enthusiastic youngsters have come in, but have often been left shell-shocked by the intensity of the league. Not this season, the signings of Davy Wilson, Dom Waldouck, Kyle Cooper and Goneva are genuine indicators of the desire to build a competitive team.
Additionally, the Falcons have been boosted by an attacking philosophy that would not have been recognised at Kingston Park last year. Rather than favouring a forward-heavy game of mauling, scrummaging and lineouts, the Falcons now have genuine talent behind the scrum, and although their fly-half position is still up for grabs, Joel Hodgson does at least add a bit of the youthful vigour that Mike Delany lacks. But the real star in the half-back axis is Takalua, who’s linebreaks off the back of breakdowns gives Newcastle the momentum they’ve been lacking and provides increased opportunities for Goneva and Marcus Watson to score against tired defences.
The only concern. With Leicester having sacked Richard Cockerill this morning, what are the chances that the Tigers will look north and offer Richards a second attempt at managing at Welford Road.