Falcons' wings clipped as they battle the drop and dwindling attendances

Stars and fans have gone, writes Simon Turnbull, leaving Newcastle in fight for survival
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The Independent Online

The most relieved man on planet rugby last weekend? Martin Johnson after Toby Flood fed Chris Ashton for the score that finally killed Scotland's World Cup challenge at Eden Park? Not quite.

It had to be Alan Tait at Kingston Park when Ally Hogg snaffled possession and hoofed the ball into the West Stand. It brought an end to the fifth match of the season for the Newcastle Falcons and to a losing streak of 11 Premiership matches, stretching back to March.

You could hear the pressure being released when Tait was asked how it felt to hang on for a 15-10 victory against Wasps. "Phooow!" the Newcastle head coach exhaled. "It's a massive relief. It was vital.

"I haven't slept much this week, thinking, 'If we fall away from the pack...' With Worcester and these teams picking up points, it would have been very difficult to get these boys round."

As it was, the Newcastle boys were celebrating in the home dressing room, Jimmy Gopperth leading the way with a Maori victory chant, "A tikki tikki tamba." For Newcastle and their points-machine of an outside-half from New Zealand (winner of the Premiership's Golden Boot for the past two seasons, and the match winner on Sunday with five penalties out of five) it was just the one battle won. There will need to be a good few more successes between now and 12 May if Newcastle are to win the war against relegation.

For Tait and his players, it is a fight not just to keep the Falcons on the top-flight perch they have occupied since 1997 but also to avoid the stretch of land between Stockport and the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis becoming a wasteland for top-level professional club rugby in Britain.

To the south and the north of the English outpost, there have been casualties. Down in Yorkshire, Leeds are struggling near the foot of the second-tier Championship after losing Premiership status by a whisker in May this year. Up in Scotland, on Tait's home ground, it is four years now since the Borders folded, suffering from a lack of support all round: of finances, of playing resources and of the paying public.

For the past 12 years, the backing of the Tyneside entrepreneur Dave Thompson has been vital to the Falcons' survival. Indeed, his long stint as chairman and owner brought silverware (the Tetley's Bitter Cup in 2001, the Powergen Cup in 2004) and a raft of world-class players. It remains to be seen whether Semore Kurdi can do the same.

The Tynedale businessman succeeded Thompson as chairman and major stakeholder a fortnight ago, pledging to "continue to strengthen the squad". He added: "Aviva Premiership rugby is important for the north." Clearly, ensuring that it remains at Kingston Park next season is going to be a battle against the odds.

Newcastle – the inaugural Premiership champions back in 1998, when Tait, the former Scotland and British Lions centre, starred alongside the likes of Rob Andrew, Pat Lam and Va'aiga Tuigamala – have not finished in the top half of the table for 10 seasons now. As recently as the 2007-2008 campaign, though, they were averaging attendances of 7,530 and boasted a team of talents such as Matt Burke, Carl Hayman, Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Mathew Tait, Jamie Noon, Tom May and Phil Dowson. Not that the talents did them much good, it has to be said; they finished second bottom to Leeds that season.

Last term they also finished second bottom to Leeds, surviving on points difference on a dramatic denouement day on which their Yorkshire rivals came within a try of escaping the drop. They did so, in Tait's first season, with all of the stars having departed, and with crowds falling.

Last season's average attendance was 5,317. This season, after three games, the mean is down to 3,838, although Tait was heartened by the turn-out of more than 4,000 in the driving rain last Sunday. "That's great," he said, "because if they want rugby up here they've got to get behind us. That gives teams at the bottom a lift. I'm pretty sure it gives you extra points."

Newcastle are likely to need every point they can get in the eight months ahead. Crucially, the four they earned against Wasps stopped them from being cut adrift from Worcester, their most likely rivals in the scrap to beat the drop.

Richard Hill's newly promoted side have nine points on the board now, having beaten Sale and Northampton at home. The Falcons only won twice in their home nest in the whole of last season, and just twice away. They remain bottom of the pile but with five points, the same as Northampton and two fewer than Leicester, who can both expect to climb the table once their World Cup legions are back in harness.

Newcastle have Euan Murray, the Scotland tighthead prop, to return from the global tournament in New Zealand, and also their new Samoan signing, lock Tasisina Tu'ifa. They are awaiting the return of key players after injury too – loosehead prop Jonny Golding, lock Andrew van der Heijden – and have only just started to blend the former Cheetahs centre Corne Uys into a back line that has become reliant on Gopperth's boot.

The Falcons may have an absence of household names these days but Tait insists: "The heart and commitment of this group is absolutely fantastic. I know that this lot will go to the bitter end, no matter what."

At Saracens this Sunday, Tait's charges will need all of their fighting spirit against the Premiership champions. It will be the same when Worcester visit Kingston Park on Friday 4 November. For Newcastle and their head coach, that fixture already has a "must win" look about it. The days when the Falcons ruled the roost of English rugby are long gone. It was in the autumn of 1995 that Sir John Hall took over the Tyneside club and promised the world. Three years later they beat a World XV to lift the Sanyo Cup at Twickenham, with Tait as captain. These days, the goal is more pragmatic: Premiership survival.

When the falcons ruled the roost

In their days as plain Gosforth, the club that became Newcastle Falcons won the John Player Cup final at Twickenham in 1976 and 1977.

Their finest hour (and 20 minutes) came on 17 May 1998, three years after the takeover by the Newcastle United chairman John Hall – the day they secured the inaugural Premiership title in their first season back in the top flight. They did so with a 44-20 win against Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop with tries from Gary Armstrong (two), Rob Andrew, Nick Popplewell, Pat Lam and Richard Arnold.

Their side also included Jonny Wilkinson, Doddie Weir and Tony Underwood. Alan Tait came on as a 67th-minute replacement for Va'aiga Tuigamala, the former All Black wing. Six days later Tait captained the Falcons to a 47-41 win over a World XV in the Sanyo Cup at Twickenham. It was his last match for the club.