Rugby Union: Newcastle's bottle is food and drink to seasoned Tait

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The Independent Online
The conservative wing of the Rugby Football Union may find it difficult to stomach, but Sir John Hall's Newcastle are ahead of the Allied Dunbar Premiership pack and growing stronger by the day. Are the Geordies here to stay? Our Rugby Correspondent gets the lowdown on the high life from a key foot-soldier in rugby's Toon Army.

There is more than a touch of the "nobody likes us and we don't care" about Newcastle as they continue to buck the system and home in on Premiership honours at their first attempt. They boast an owner who has ruffled more establishment feathers than a fox in a chicken coop, a director of rugby whose squeaky clean image has slipped to reveal a competitive streak of purest granite, a captain who reacts to every yellow card with increased vigour and an uncompromising professional attitude that leaves the "play up and play the game" brigade spluttering into their G and Ts.

In fact, they could be a mirror image of the Wimbledon of Sam Hammam and Vinny Jones, except for one important distinction. They have class. Oodles of it. Class in the tight five, class in the back row, class at half-back, class out wide. They may not be the youngest side in the Premiership, but the preponderance of thirtysomethings has given them a "now or never" edge that is proving extremely difficult to resist.

Two of those elder statesmen, Rob Andrew and Dean Ryan, are combining demanding roles with a dexterity that speaks volumes for their professionalism and powers of self-motivation. As director of rugby and outside-half, Andrew has become every bit as adept at winning the games played in the boardroom as those played outside on the Kingston Park pitch. As coach and captain, Ryan has persuaded a hard core of more experienced internationals to follow him out of the trenches and into the line of fire. In short, the renegade Wasps have matched Sir John Hall's ruthlessness in kind.

"There is," agrees Alan Tait, the Scottish centre who performed so influentially as a Lions Test wing in South Africa last summer, "a hard edge here. Very definitely. And as someone who played a lot of rugby league at a good level, I respond to that. No one at Newcastle is there to mess about. We train, we play and, at the moment at least, we win. I've been extremely impressed with the management and coaching at the club, not least because it has created a culture of success."

At 33, Tait is a seasoned performer, autumn being the season in question. (The same can be said of Gary Armstrong, Nick Popplewell, George Graham and Richard Arnold). Yet his influence and enthusiasm are such that Newcastle may well offer to extend his contract beyond the end of the current campaign, leaving Tait to decide between putting his body on the line for another year and upping sticks in pursuit of a coaching position elsewhere.

"To be honest with you, I was sceptical about how we would perform in the top flight after winning promotion last year," he said. "Not because I didn't feel we were a good side, but because I wondered whether we had left our preparation too late. Five of us went on the Lions tour, some were abroad with England, others were injured. There was no pre-season to speak of, no chance to build for the Premiership challenge.

"When we left for France in late July for a week in Agen, I was still aching from the Lions trip. But looking back, that camp was crucial. There was a good gym, good weather and a strong emphasis on fitness. There were no moans, no excuses, no time-wasters. When we played Agen, who are some side, at the end of our stay, we won. I knew then that there was a fair bit of bottle in the squad."

That "bottle" element is important to Tait, whose league experience with Widnes and Leeds, not to mention his 16 Great Britain caps, taught him that success in a professional sport is usually paid for in blood, sweat and tears. "What encourages me about Newcastle is our ability to steal games. We won at Bath in the last minute and we won at Sale when we were looking down both barrels for much of the afternoon. Those sorts of results indicate character.

"Perhaps they indicate that luck is on our side, too. You need luck in a drawn-out competition like the Premiership and the longer you stay at the head of the pile, the more the good fortune seems to stick around. I played through some bad times at Leeds and it often appeared that although we were performing as well as the teams at the top, the bounce of the ball was against us. At Newcastle at the moment, the bounce is with us."

There are also, however, sound tactical reasons why Newcastle go unbeaten into Sunday's home match with London Irish. "I think we've made a virtue of strong defence and the league experience plays a part in that," Tait said. "When Inga (Va'aiga Tuigamala, the dual union-league specialist from New Zealand) and I play together in midfield, we move up far quicker than most, very much in the 13-man style. Opponents are forever claiming we play offside, but if they watch the videos with a dispassionate eye they'll find what we do is perfectly legal. Southern hemisphere teams play the same trick and get slapped on the back for it. When we do it, we get it in the neck. That's life, I suppose.

"I would also say that we have a strong, physical pack that has delivered week in, week out, especially in the bad conditions. Ryan is in real form, Pat Lam and Ross Nesdale are good operators and Garath Archer is back to his best. We may not have the quickest pack in the world and it will be interesting to see how they go when the weather improves, but at the moment they are winning us ball.

"It would be daft to take anything for granted because the big games are still to come: Bath and Saracens at home will definitely test us, especially as everyone is after our scalp. But that's nothing new to me; Leeds were the most unpopular league side in England when I was there, so I'm used to that sort of animosity. Hopefully, it will bring the best out of us."