Newcastle's cast-offs a world apart

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The Independent Online
Newcastle, according to the latest public pronouncement by the bold Sir John Hall, will be the sporting capital of Europe in five years. "Where people used to say Barcelona they'll be saying Newcastle," the man behind the Newcastle Sporting Club proclaimed after watching his rugby team's Courage League record 156-5 taming of the Rugby Lions eight days ago. Unlike the Magpies of St James' Park, however (and, indeed, the Catalan football fat cats of the Nou Camp), the Newcastle Falcons have no history or tradition attached to their name.

Under the identity they have assumed, in their black and white stripes, since Sir John's Tyneside sporting monster gobbled up Newcastle Gosforth rugby club 11 months ago, they have won nothing more than a place in the vanguard of the sport's new professional army. The Gosforth name and the green and white colours in which the old club triumphed at Twickenham in the John Player Cup finals of 1976 and 1977 have been cast off in the name of progress. They are now borne in the lower reaches of rugby union's new order: division four of the Durham and Northumberland League, to be precise.

While Sir John's Falcons were tearing apart Rugby, Gosforth were on league duty at Newton Aycliffe. Their players did the once-famous name proud too, winning 142-5 and matching the 24-try count achieved by Rob Andrew and his new recruits. On Thursday night, while Andrew put Armstrong, Underwood, Popplewell and Co through their professional paces at Kingston Park, the Gosforth squad gathered at a dimly lit Tyneside park pitch to prepare for the challenge of facing Alnwick seconds.

"Good luck to all the people at Newcastle," Simon Smith, Gosforth's chairman and open-side flanker, said. "They are a professional outfit and they're doing very well. But we are focused on our ambitions. We're Gosforth. We're here and we're going to survive."

That survival instinct was required when the professionals at Kingston Park decided that, as well as the Gosforth name and the green and white hoops, they could do without the excess baggage of third, fourth and fifth teams in their new, streamlined, operation. Stalwarts like Smith were faced with the prospect of joining other clubs. Instead, they chose to form a new one of their own. Hence Gosforth's reincarnation, some 12 leagues below the Falcons.

It has been no token, sentimental exercise, just to keep the name and the spirit of the old club alive. They have forged a link with Northumbria University, whose sports complex on the outskirts of Newcastle is due to have floodlighting and a refurbished clubhouse by Christmas, and have built up a membership of 170 in less than four months. They have also attracted pounds 6,000 in shirt sponsorship.

"We've got our ambitions," Smith said. "We want to go up the leagues. It has taken a hell of a lot of commitment to get us to where we are now. We could have all drifted into other clubs and the Gosforth name probably would have died. Legally speaking we're not the old club but bearing in mind we've got four players who appeared in John Player Cup finals for Gosforth we see it that way."

Smith himself played in the 1981 final, which Gosforth lost 22-15 to Leicester. So did Bob Anderson, still one of his back-row colleagues. Colin White and Richard Breakey are veterans of the 1976 and 1977 triumphs, against Rosslyn Park and Waterloo. White also won four caps as an England prop, the first as a 34-year-old in the 15-9 win against the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1983, while Breakey was Scotland's stand-in stand-off for the injured Ian McGeechan in the 1978 Calcutta Cup match. Work commitments - White is a tree surgeon contractor, Breakey has a computing business - kept them away from training on Thursday, but both were named in the team to play Alnwick's second string yesterday.

White and Breakey emerged from the team Jack Rowell built as Gosforth coach in the 1970s. A lock with the Tyneside club in his playing days, the England manager also helped Roger Uttley, Peter Dixon, Malcolm Young and Duncan Madsen along the road to international level.{

Simon Smith learned the finer points of back-row play from Uttley and Dixon on training nights at the Great North Road ground that was Gosforth's home until 1990. His father served the club as captain and secretary and he first pulled on the green and white jersey as a member of the under- 12s team.

There was still a youthful spring to his 39-year-old step as he joined the leaders of the Durham and Northumberland League's fourth division for Thursday-night training. "It's the Gosforth name," he said, explaining his enduring rugby passion. "It's the green and white shirt. We're carrying on the Gosforth tradition."