Call them the silent self-assassins. Newcastle, good enough to win at Bath and London Irish before Christmas and sufficiently resourceful to chisel out a victory at Wasps just after it, have slithered quietly into the relegation zone over the last few weeks, thanks largely to a chronic dose of the hometown blues. They have prevailed just once at Kingston Park this season, and if they fail to double the tally by beating Gloucester tonight, they will find themselves in a full-on fight for survival with Worcester, Leeds and Sale.
"It's a vital match," acknowledged Steve Bates, the Falcons' director of rugby, who was still smarting from the 58-15 shellacking his side received at Saracens, hardly the most dynamic attacking side in Premiership rugby, last weekend. "There is a huge onus on us to repay our supporters' faith. Although we've had very little in the way of preparation time, we're keen to get back out there and put the record straight after letting ourselves down at Vicarage Road. If we stick together and make a big collective effort, we believe we have the confidence and the ability to secure the result we all know we need." Blind faith? Bates must pray not, as must those Tynesiders who are beginning to fear for the very future of professional rugby in the north-east. Some clubs – Worcester, for instance – are sufficiently well-resourced to survive a season of second-tier Championship rugby and come back fighting, just as Harlequins and Northampton did after respective relegation traumas. Newcastle do not look nearly so well set, despite their enviable habit of fast-tracking gifted England-qualified academy players into their senior side.
Although they are three points off the bottom, that advantage could be wiped out in 80 minutes, and with a difficult run-in, tonight's match falls squarely into the "must-win" category.
On the player movement front, London Irish landed a haymaker of a transfer punch by signing Daniel Bowden, the highly regarded 23-year-old midfielder from New Zealand, for next season. Bowden, equally comfortable at outside-half or inside centre, will join from the Canterbury-based Crusaders side once he has concluded this year's Super 14 business.
Less positive news emerged from Wasps, who confirmed the early release of Lee Smith, their recruit from rugby league, who has failed to make an impact on the union game and is returning to Yorkshire for "personal reasons".