Rugby Union: Hall adamant that Newcastle are not for sale

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The Independent Online
THE OWNER of the Newcastle Falcons, Sir John Hall, last night dismissed speculation that he was planning to sell his 76 per cent stake in the club. As the reigning champions prepared for their Christmas campaign, their straight talking proprietor was explaining why the club was not up for sale.

"This coming year is going to be a watershed in the professional game," explained Sir John, "because it is when we expect the European Commission judgment which will give us the right to organise ourselves within the Rugby Football Union as professional clubs.

"These rights will allow us to own television broadcasting and commercial deals. And the International Rugby Board would have to recognise that they are not above European law. There is nothing in this talk of selling the club. I have fought this battle for the last three years, it would be a nonsense to pull out now."

Newcastle are, however, in danger of dropping out of title contention. They are six points adrift of the leaders, Leicester, which is likely to be eight by the time they trot out for Sunday's home match against Allied Dunbar Premiership strugglers West Hartlepool, since the Tigers tackle bottom-but-one Bedford on Boxing Day.

"We are saying that this League is open," said their coach, Steve Bates. "We are not out of the hunt and in some ways we are more threatening than last year."

They will have to threaten without Gary Armstrong, the Scotland international scrum-half, for the next few weeks after he chipped a bone in a thumb.

Without him and understudy Allen Chilten (two cracked fingers), it looked as if Bates might have to dust off his boots and turn out, but at yesterday's training session Hall Charlton, an England Schools 18 Group player last season, lined up with the first-choice players and looks a good bet to start his first Premiership match. He was on the bench for the Anglo-Welsh game against Cardiff last month.

Leicester, still without the injured Joel Stransky and Will Greenwood, field an unchanged team for only the second time this season. They will be very wary of Bedford, who, under the joint guidance of the recently departed Geoff Cooke and Paul Turner, gave the Tigers a real scare early in the season on their own patch.

"They were not easy as we found down there," admitted Dean Richards, Leicester's team manager. "In fact they probably deserved to win that one.

"They countered well and played some expansive rugby, we only won with a try late in injury time."

The Tigers should be a different proposition in front of a full house at Welford Road. But Richards is cautious and probably with good cause. "We are happy to be top," he said, "but our form before the month of internationals was far better than it is now. We have had a lot of injuries as well over the last few weeks, but we have come through it winning our last two without Joel and Will."

Much of that can be put down to the form of Tim Stimpson with the boot. The full-back landed match-clinching goals against Newcastle a couple of weeks ago and followed that up with six penalties to sort out the close- fought Kingsholm contest last weekend.

At least Bedford will have the services of Jason Forster, their dynamic Wales A flanker. The player said yesterday that his proposed transfer to Pontypridd was definitely off. Forster, who is contracted to Bedford until May, has a verbal agreement with Rudi Straeuli, the club's director of rugby, which would allow him to go if a club came in for him.

"My wife and son are living in Newport," explained Forster. "Having played for Wales A against Argentina I am keen to press my claim for a place in the full squad."

In Reading on Boxing Day Richmond take on a revitalised and dangerous London Irish, who ran them close in October. Richmond are still without their captain and No 8 Ben Clarke (fractured cheekbone) and the Wales lock, Craig Quinnell, is a doubt. The Exiles field the side which ended an impressive six-match unbeaten run by Harlequins last week.