Rugby Union: A vision in black and white

Tony Underwood, the Newcastle wing, says his Falcons are primed for glory today
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SO at the end of today is it going to be the men in black or the men in black and white who lift the Premiership trophy? By definition our fate has already been decided but at least here at The Stoop we feel we can have a say in our destiny. Eighty minutes stand between us and triumph and disaster, for there is no middle ground. Lose today and we at Newcastle join nine other clubs with nothing but rhetoric to show for their season's campaign (excluding the European champions, Bath). We have given ourselves a great opportunity and to fall now at the final hurdle would be a crushing blow.

Not by chance are we in such a strong position. Central to our "success" has been the vision of a handful of people in our set-up. Sir John Hall's decision to put Kevin Keegan at the helm of the football club was instrumental in their revival and so far he is probably not regretting his appointment of Rob Andrew as director of rugby at the Falcons. Along with his colleagues Steve Bates and Dean Ryan they have moulded this team along the clear guidelines drawn up in the early days of 1995.

They felt they had an idea of how they wanted this team to play and the characters who could do that for them. They had the advantage over other clubs of starting from fresh at an early stage in professionalism when they could build an empire with whomever they wanted. The other big English clubs were taken by surprise and in an effort to keep their sides together in a player market rapidly taking shape they had hurriedly to bite the bullet and sign up their entire squads without the same kind of forethought and clear agenda that they we were working on up here.

Professionalism is a cruel animal where only the strongest survive and only a few clubs have come to terms with that straightaway; others are still trying to right now.

With a good idea of the players on the circuit the "management" at Newcastle were able to assemble a squad along strict guidelines of not just their abilities as players but also of their attributes as people on and off the field. Not just anyone was going to make a trip to the North-east. Fit the bill or look elsewhere. Ultimately it has become a gathering of kindred spirits which has engendered a tremendous sense of community and pride in one another. That and no lack of ability mixed in has made us into a potent force.

We play a straightforward style of rugby, uncompromising, direct and hard. This interlaced with the ability to do the basics of passing, tackling, presenting the ball and clearing rucks and mauls well lays the solid foundations. When these are laid out then the obvious talents running through the team are able to come to the fore and when you pose a threat in as many positions as we do, sooner or later defences will have to break.

Ultimately all the theory and talk comes to nothing if mentally and physically the team do not take to the field in the right shape. Our conditioning is carried out by our guru Steve Black. This man is known by just about everyone in Newcastle and by Premiership spectators across the country who have viewed a match anywhere near the Falcons dug-out.

Blackie's methods are to say the least unconventional. Not for him bleep tests, sprint times, bench press maximum et cetera. He has a full and intimate knowledge of every one of his charges which gives him all the information he needs to assess how fit, quick or strong he feels we are. Training is a joy with this man. And believe me, anyone who knows me vaguely well may not be reading this sentence such is the shock of that last statement. Yes, his knowledge of the world of strength and conditioning is phenomenal, but what really makes the man is the magnitude of his enthusiasm and character which rubs off on all around him.

The key point to his methodology is a global picture of where we are and where we are going. He, along with the management, has a clear idea of where we need to be each step along this evolutionary path. For example this season has been like a 400 metre race. It is those competitors who are able to keep their form in the closing stretch who will win. Therefore he has kept a careful balance in our training such that the rigours of the season have caught up with us less than perhaps for other teams. One simple way of doing that is by doing cardiovascular work on bikes rather than running, thereby keeping the strain off the joints and muscles of our larger brethren. In rugby training this is carried on further by the coaches Bates and Ryan keeping down to a minimum any contact work that we do.

This will obviously stand us in good stead in the seasons to come but we are in the here and now. The trophy is there for us and we are mad for it. For ourselves, and for Blackie.

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