Bates helps to fill the gaps

Owen Slot meets a former Wasp at the heart of the Newcastle renaissance
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The Independent Online
FANTASY rugby, a game now being played for real, has had another active week: five major transfers, three of them to Tyneside. Rob Andrew, the only serious player, it seems, has almost completed his team.

Tony Underwood, Gary Armstrong and Doddie Weir were presented at Newcastle last week, the ninth, 10th and 11th established new players to arrive there in the last two months. And while they were being paraded at St James' Park, far away in a school in Hampshire, Steve Bates, who is to join Newcastle as one of Andrew's deputies, explained the method behind the feverish flapping of his new club's chequebook.

"It would be pointless us going to Dean Richards or Jerry Guscott and saying 'How about it?' because they've got things going for them where they are," he said. "But I think Rob might now be satisfied with what he's done in the short term. He's been running around like a madman making sure he's got enough players so Newcastle don't go down. But I think he will now step back and say 'Right, I've got enough and, due to the 120- day rule, I've run out of time. I've got some good players who should keep me in League Two.' "

Top of Andrew's shopping list, it seems, was Bates himself, who he wanted to work as his assistant in conjunction with Dean Ryan. All three were from Wasps so it was not hard for Andrew to make his initial approach. "He spoke to us very soon after he was appointed, about a couple of days after, and said, almost half-jokingly, 'Do you fancy a coaching job?' We just laughed." Andrew made it clear that he was absolutely serious a month ago, on the eve of Wasps' match at Sale; Bates was rooming with Andrew in their hotel, Ryan was called in to join them. "We had a long chat," Bates recalled, "the overriding memory of which is Rob's enthusiasm for it and the excitement he generated in us."

Andrew's difficulty was the rule requiring players to wait 120 days before playing for a new club. "He really needed some sort of confirmation fairly quickly. He needed to know if we would be prepared to go and whether we could play in the last six or seven games, because if we weren't he needed to go elsewhere." Ryan and Bates discussed the offer at length ("part of the attraction of this move was that we were going as a unit"), the following week Ryan and his wife were invited by Bates and his wife to supper and the four agreed that it was too good an opportunity to miss.

"Sorting out that bit of the jigsaw," Bates said, "meant Rob could get on with recruitment." As stories of rejections filled the press, though - Archer and Corry of Bristol and Watson of Harlequins all said no - this did not appear so simple. "Rob was a bit concerned," Bates said, "particularly with the side not doing as well as he'd have hoped."

The side's struggle was part of his problem. Archer and Corry met him together but decided against returning to their old club for the same reason: international ambitions are less likely to be fulfilled if a season and a half is spent in League Two. "That's why the players he's got are either has-beens or established internationals," Archer said.

"But there was more going on behind the scenes that Rob was happier about," Bates said. "He was talking to players who were not big names but were good enough to keep Newcastle up. These were obvious people: Graham Childs [another former Wasp] was up there anyway, Peter Walton [the Scottish international] had moved into the area and getting Richard Arnold back from West Hartlepool was a good move. With Rob, probably Dean too, that was five guys, a third of a team already."

Over the next three weeks, the number rose steadily, Ryan, Bates, Nick Popplewell of Wasps and John Dixon, the former West Hartlepool player, were followed by last week's triumvirate. "It hasn't been a conscious decision," Bates said. "but because Rob, Dean and I know how we want to play, Rob has recruited people he thinks can play that way. We're keen for a game based upon continuity, running with the ball in the hand. All our recruitment will bear this in mind."

The emphasis in recruitment may now change, Bates believes. "Up until now, we've been looking for people with proven ability at a high level. The next round of recruitment may take in younger guys that we'll be looking to bring on for the future." This, though, does not mean that other clubs can breathe a sigh of relief. "We might, in the next couple of months, start talking to people about coming next season to win the Second Division," Bates said. And next season? "Next season, of course, we'll be looking again."

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