Rugby Union: Bates misses his tank engine

David Llewellyn hears how Newcastle have been laid low by the loss of a linchpin
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THE PROBLEMS really began in the summer, when a tank was involved in a collision with a tank transporter. Until then it had all been looking fairly rosy for Newcastle. The champions, having decided to beef up the front row, had just agreed a deal to sign Western Province's Marius Hurter, the South African international tight-head prop.

It did not matter too much that Hurter could not arrive until late October at the earliest. Rob Andrew and his coaching staff were confident that Paul van Zandvliet would pick up where he had left off last year, when there had been no cover for him. But then came the collision, in which "Tank", as van Zandvliet is known, suffered an ankle injury, but more seriously for Newcastle's rugby aspirations, also an unpleasant bout of whiplash.

"Of all the areas of his anatomy for a tight-head prop to injure, his neck has to be the worst," groaned Steve Bates, the coach who is charged with trying to salvage something from an uneasy start to Newcastle's title defence.

Bates acknowledges that things are not quite going as planned - especially not last weekend when London Irish successfully raided the north. "They are going to be a formidable side this season," Bates said, "but we have a personnel problem at the moment. We are two tight-heads short." Without that key man the forwards just cannot provide a stable platform. "Paul has been unable to train, let alone play, and we are at the mercy of Western Province as far as the arrival of Hurter goes. When we signed him back in the summer, after identifying the front row as an area we needed to strengthen, we saw Hurter's arrival as the icing on the cake."

Now that icing is just a sticky mess. Newcastle have won just one game (against Bath) and have suffered two Premiership defeats, as well as stumbling at Swansea in an unofficial Anglo-Welsh match.

The recruiting of Hurter brought another problem. His arrival meant that they had three overseas players, but only two are allowed to play. In order to accommodate the South African, last season's Premiership Player of the Year Pat Lam, the dynamic, explosive back row forward, was allowed to join a surprised and grateful Northampton.

It is tempting to say that they miss him badly. But Bates will have none of that. "It is too early to tell," he insisted. "I think Pat would be going backwards as they all are, having to make more tackles, because of what we lack up front."

In the light of that, the mood in the camp is a priority. "They are a bit shell-shocked after last weekend," Bates admitted. "We have had three extremely hard matches to start off with and the players cannot be faulted for their effort and work rate. They have come off the field at the end of all three games absolutely shattered.

"We are having to rely on the spirit that took us to the title last year. So far they keeping in good humour and we are being pretty philosophical about the present state of things. Once we have our tight-head props with us we can stabilise things and start to challenge again. From a coaching point of view we are confident about that. Right now, though, our real aim is to keep the guys as buoyant as possible."

The sinking feeling, though, extends beyond the immediate state of play. Newcastle Falcons have a new eyrie, the Gateshead Stadium; but it would appear that the local rugby public in the North-east either do not know they have moved or do not care. Just 3,452 watched their solitary victory so far this season over Bath. "We had expected around 10,000 for Bath," Bates said. "There were around 4,500 for the London Irish match. It is disappointing, we are looking for average gates of around 6,000 to 7,000."

Today's local derby against West Hartlepool will not only test the qualities of the champions yet again, it will also prove a good measure of the strength of interest in the game in the North-east.