An 11-year odyssey from Hall's hype to thriving rugby club

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The Independent Online

It was on 18 August last year that the earth moved for Rob Andrew and Newcastle Falcons. And the walls, too.

Andrew and his Falcons were on a 10-day tour of Japan when an earthquake struck their hotel in Tokyo. "I was in the dining room in the basement when it happened and it was a pretty scary moment," the future Rugby Football Union élite director of rugby reflected. "The walls were shaking."

It wasn't quite a 7.2 Richter scale job precisely 12 months later, when Andrew's Twickenham appointment was finally announced. It came as no shock at Kingston Park, with John Fletcher already installed as a replacement director of rugby and on his way to Scotland for the opening pre-season match against Glasgow. The departing Andrew was on the way to Burnbrae, too. He kept his own counsel as he watched his old charges - Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Burke and all - lose 13-7.

It was all very different when Andrew arrived on Tyneside in September 1995. The bold Sir John Hall had just bought the ailing Newcastle Gosforth as part of his Newcastle United Sporting Club empire and was ready to launch into rugby's new professional era with a chequebook in his hand and England's long-serving stand-off at his side. In unveiling Andrew as his rugby development director at St James' Park, Sir John proclaimed: "We aim to develop the rugby club in the way we have developed the football club, and in Rob we have the Kevin Keegan of the rugby world."

Andrew himself was swept along by the hysteria. "The rugby folk of the north need the focus of a major club attracting good players and good opposition, playing the best teams and getting into European competition," he said. "In five years there could be a world club championship. It would be fantastic to be playing Auckland in the final."

Well, Andrew and the Falcons did get to take on the world. They won, too. On the back of their Premiership title win in 1998, they played a World XV in the Sanyo Cup at Twickenham, winning 47-41.

In Europe, Andrew's Falcons never got beyond the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. On the home front, save for that first-season success after promotion, they never ventured higher than sixth in the Premiership again, although they did lift the Powergen Cup twice. "If I have one regret, it's that we have not been a consistent force in the Premiership," Andrew confessed last season, in which Newcastle finished seventh.

By any measure, though, the Falcons have come a long way in the 10 years and 11 months of And-rew's stewardship. They were fourth bottom of Courage League Two when he arrived and have since won three major trophies; three more than Kevin Keegan won with Newcastle United.

They have also become established as a thriving Premiership club with a strong following in a region that was historically (with the exception of Gosforth's John Player Cup successes of 1976 and 1977) something of a rugby wilderness. With gates averaging 8,000 and occasionally hitting the 10,200 ceiling, Kingston Park, with its splendid West Stand and plans for an equally grand East Stand, has become a major port of call on the top-class rugby circuit - much to the envy of rugby folk over the border, where the long-established Scottish heartlands struggle to attract 3,000 to watch the three professional sides.

That legacy owes as much to Andrew as it does to Dave Thompson, the one-time Novocastrians hooker who took over as owner when Hall and his fellow backers bailed out five years ago. The first-rate Falcons acad-emy, formerly run by Fletcher, has been another outstanding success, adding the likes of Mathew Tait, Jamie Noon and Toby Flood to the internationals bought in to Kingston Park.

Andrew was proud to name an all-English 22 for what proved to be his final match in charge, a 54-19 home win against Leeds in May. Of the XV who took the field against Glasgow on Friday night, all bar Burke were English-men. Eight were graduates of the Falcons' academy.

In Andrew's time, a galaxy of stars has passed through Kingston Park. There have been some exceptional buys - Burke, Gary Armstrong, Va'aiga Tuigamala among them - and some of the turkey variety. Last season the hiring of Owen Finegan and Tino Paoletti came nowhere near to curing the Achilles heel that Andrew leaves: a pack of forwards who struggle to win a fair share of set-piece ball.

Still, with whatever amount of possession the Falcons do manage to plunder, they have the man who can make the very most of it. And Rob Andrew's new employers have reason to be eternally grateful for their élite director's most precious product from 11 years at Kingston Park: one Jonathan Peter Wilkinson OBE.

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