Rugby Union: New ground swell on Tyneside

Simon Turnbull finds rugby's high flyers are looking for a bigger nest to feather
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The Independent Online
THE Newcastle Falcons have been on top of the English club perch before. In their previous incarnation, as the amateurs of Gosforth, they won the John Player Cup in 1976 and 1977. Duncan Madsen was part of the all-conquering team that Jack Rowell built on Tyneside. These days he follows the soaring Falcons from the seated wings at Kingston Park. The former Scotland hooker is the rugby union correspondent of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

"There were lots of doubters when this started," he said, breaking from the penning of his preview of London Irish's visit to Tyneside this afternoon to consider how far his old club have come in the two years and three months since Sir John Hall kicked off the professional era on their behalf. "We used to get 300, 400 watching us in my playing days. But I always thought that, properly marketed, the crowds would be there. The interest is massive on Tyneside now. Obviously football is the number one topic of conversation but people in the clubs - the working-men's clubs - will talk about the Falcons. Everyone knows the stars: Tuigamala, Armstrong, Andrew, Tait. And, of course, everyone knows they're winning.

"It's not just a Tyneside phenomenon, though. It's a regional club now. People are coming from all over the North-east and Cumbria. There's also a big contingent from the Borders and Scotland. I know one family from Edinburgh who are season-ticket holders. The problem now is they need a stadium - and Kingston Park is not a stadium."

David Campbell does not disagree. "The ground's outlived its usefulness," he said. "My personal recommendation is that we should be looking to build a stadium that can hold 12,000." Campbell is the other chairman of the Falcons - of the rugby committee rather than the controlling limited company. It was he who knocked on Sir John's door and asked him to help the club become the market-leader in rugby union's new world.

"From a playing point of view everything has gone as well as we expected," Campbell said. "We set out a three-year plan to get into the top four of the top division and, hopefully, we're going to achieve that. The side we've got is a very good one. They're a good set of lads, very much committed to the professional game. But it's a two-way thing. We've got to support them so they get the support from the public they deserve.

"Kingston Park's capacity, with temporary seating, is 6,700. But it's uncomfortable with more than 4,500 people in. If I were a normal spectator going along to watch I wouldn't be encouraged to come back by what I see off the pitch. The facilities just aren't there. We have got to look to improve. Personally, I'd love to stay where we are and develop a 12,000- capacity stadium. We're close to the A1 and to Newcastle Airport. Hopefully, the planning authorities can see the advantage of having a successful rugby club in Newcastle."

It seems, however, that Newcastle City Council are reluctant to grant permission for development - because of limited road access and likely objections from residents of an adjacent housing estate. Campbell has not given up hope that the Falcons will be able to play in a redeveloped home roost. In the meantime, they face the problem of having to cope with their own success. They averaged gates of 4,500 for the three Premiership home games they played before Christmas but, with their championship challenge gathering momentum, the fixture with Bath a week today has been moved to Gateshead International Stadium. The running track that surrounds the pitch makes it a far from ideal venue but it can seat 11,500 in comfort.

"Playing at Gateshead is very much a one-off operation," Campbell said. "It's an athletics stadium, not a rugby ground. But it will give us a chance to gauge the support we can attract and give us an indication of the size of stadium we need." More than 5,000 tickets have already been sold and a 10,000 gate is expected. Public demand may well force the Falcons to return to Gateshead, with Saracens, Wasps, Harlequins and Leicester all yet to visit them. The Leicester game on 3 May could even be switched to St James' Park.

Venturing into the Magpies' nest would certainly be a welcome prospect for the burgeoning membership of the Falcons Supporters' Club. The honorary president might even make it back for the day, though Jack Rowell's partner in the Gosforth second row of the 1960s is certain to be at the game, wherever it is held. By then, David Campbell and his fellow officials should be closer to solving the home problem the Premiership leaders quite literally cannot afford to leave lingering.

"We can't keep surviving on gates of 4,500," he said. "We really need around 10,000 to break even. So we're 50 per cent down the line at the moment. We're fortunate to have a kind benefactor but Sir John Hall didn't come in with his eyes closed. He didn't come into rugby to get rich. He doesn't expect to make a return on his investment, so long as the community benefits. But over five years we should have money coming back in." And that is likely to be the hardest part for the high-flying Falcons.