Rugby Union: Test is yet to come for Armstrong

Paul Trow finds Newcastle's evergreen ready for a big finale

THE PROSPECT of becoming an answer in the sports quiz from hell - which club won the league one season, the cup the next and didn't qualify for Europe on either occasion - is no laughing matter in the North-east.

At Newcastle, late of Sir John Hall and Gateshead Stadium, the new owner David Thompson and the director of rugby Rob Andrew are all too aware that such a scenario could leave the Falcons on the verge of financial freefall.

Each of the six English clubs who return to European Cup action next season will expect an income of at least pounds 500,000 - an amount which may make the difference between profit (or a digestable loss) and catastrophe. But winning the Tetley's Bitter Cup will not secure a place in Europe either for Newcastle or Wasps, their opponents at Twickenham on 15 May. To line up alongside the cream of the Continent and the Celts, they will need to finish in the top six of Allied Dunbar Premiership One.

After a personal season which must make most Indian summers seem like a Hima-layan winter, though, the irrepressible Gary Armstrong is feeling distinctly happy, and lucky. The 32-year-old livewire scrum-half has just captained Scotland to an unlikely triumph in the Five Nations' Championship, and on Wed-nesday night he led Newcastle from the front with a hat-trick of tries in their 47-14 Kingston Park victory over Richmond.

He has also just signed a new contract which keeps him at Newcastle for three more seasons and aims to celebrate against their visitors Gloucester this afternoon. "The new contract will take me up to nearly 36 - that will definitely be me finished," said Armstrong, who lives with his wife and two children in the Borders town of Jedburgh, an hour's drive north of Newcastle. "A month ago, I was wondering what I might do if Rob was unable to offer me anything.

"I certainly didn't fancy going back to doing 12-hour shifts as a lorry driver and fitting in rugby and training around that. My three and a half years at Newcastle have absolutely flown, but I've enjoyed every minute and I'm sure everyone else has. Things are very settled here despite the off-field problems we've had, and there are lots of good youngsters coming through."

It has, however, been an awkward year for Andrew, wrestling with the uncertainty of not knowing what his future budget might be and then dislocating a shoulder during last Sunday's Cup final dress rehearsal defeat in the league by Wasps, his former club. "It was very difficult for Rob when Sir John left and the new owner took over, because there had been talk of pay cuts and departures," Armstrong said.

"Now, it seems the only player who might leave is Garath Archer, but I don't know how much truth there is in that. No one would begrudge him if he went - it's up to every individual - but we'd miss him because he's a tremendous asset."

There was good news, though, about another big strength, and Armstrong is delighted that Andrew's shoulder injury is less serious than feared and that he may yet be fit for the season's finale - crunch matches against Harlequins and Saracens plus the cup final. "It would be a big boost, because they're all one-off games."

Not that he has anything but the highest regard for England's 19-year- old wunderkind Jonny Wilkinson, who switched from centre to fly-half against Richmond. "Jonny's very young and has a lot to learn, whereas Rob knows how to run a game. Jonny's a tremendous talent but he must be left to mature. A lot of people are putting him on a pedestal, but I'm sure he'd be delighted to play at centre in the World Cup."

For Armstrong, though, there are more immediate priorities than rugby's premier tournament. Like the cup final, Scotland's summer tour to South Africa and the 68 acres of land he is buying next month? Well yes, and that all-important top-six finish.

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