Newcastle hope that Gold has the Midas touch

Tait 'having a break' as South African takes helm with ex-England defence coach Ford at his side

Nine points adrift at the foot of the Premiership and fast heading out of Europe having been roundly thumped by Toulon in their last Amlin Challenge Cup outing... someone needed to do something to address Newcastle's slide into irrelevance and yesterday, the owner Semore Kurdi decided to act.

Gary Gold, the former London Irish coach who helped guide his native South Africa to a series victory over the British and Irish Lions in 2009 and has been closely associated with the Springboks ever since, was appointed director of rugby for the rest of the season.

He will be assisted by Mike Ford, whose long back-room association with England ended last month.

Ford, a defence specialist, has therefore beaten the rest of the red-rose departed – Martin Johnson, John Wells, Brian Smith and Dave Alred – in finding alternative rugby employment in the wake of the national team's inept World Cup campaign in New Zealand last autumn. Together with Gold, he has a single objective: to protect the top-flight status of a club who won the inaugural Premiership title in 1998 but have spent the last decade in the bottom half of the table.

Alan Tait, the incumbent head coach, was said to be "taking a break" from rugby. The former Scotland international questioned his own future at the club after last weekend's morale-shredding home defeat by Exeter and is unlikely to return to gainful employment at Kingston Park.

Newcastle's failure to find a winning formula – two victories in 13 Premiership outings tells its own story – left Tait dangerously exposed, but he has not been alone in feeling the heat.

Sir Ian McGeechan has had a rough time of it at Bath just recently, while the David Young-Paul Turner partnership at Wasps is under all sorts of pressure. And then there is Richard Cockerill at Leicester, who has never sought to hide the fact that failure to qualify for the Heineken Cup knockout stage would leave him in danger.

Generally speaking, the Midlanders manage to find a way out of their European pool: in 14 Heineken Cup campaigns, they have featured in the last eight on 10 occasions. But the Leicester board is not much interested in history. Dean Richards, who managed the side to consecutive titles in the early 2000s, discovered that much a short while later. If Cockerill's men fail to make it to the quarter-finals, a very real possibility if they lose to a fully cranked-up Ulster at Ravenhill tonight, there could be repercussions. Especially with the aforementioned Johnson, a Leicester icon to the tips of his toes, among rugby's unemployed.

While the Tigers lie second in Pool Four with two games left, just a couple of points behind the Belfast men, appearances are deceptive. Clermont Auvergne, the rich French club, are third but confidently expect to take maximum points from hereon in.

The Leicester captain, Geordan Murphy, said: "Ravenhill is a fortress for Ulster, particularly on a Friday night when it's wet and the wind howls through the ground, but we have to go there and get a win."

The Tigers will be without the centre Manu Tuilagi, the fly-half Toby Flood and the lock Louis Deacon.

Murphy added: "This has turned out to be a very tight, very difficult group. I knew when I saw the draw that it would be hard and while things have gone reasonably well for us recently, the schedule has taken its toll physically. A few guys are out of this game and that's a bit of a nightmare. They'll be missed, but it's the way the cookie crumbles. We have to do as good a job as possible."

Meanwhile, the Sale coach Steve Diamond has been charged with two counts of verbally abusing match officials and will appear before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel in Stafford next Tuesday night.

After watching his side lose narrowly at London Irish last weekend, he was sharply critical of the referee Wayne Barnes, both during an after-match press conference and in a subsequent pronouncement on Twitter.

Last October, Diamond admitted charges of misconduct during a match at Northampton and was given a 12-week touchline ban, suspended until May next year.

Shingler move to Scotland blocked by IRB

Steven Shingler's chances of playing Six Nations rugby for Scotland this season received a significant blow last night when the sport's supreme governing body confirmed he was tied to Wales, although the decision is open to review.

The London Irish midfielder, who has Scottish connections on his mother's side and was named in Andy Robinson's squad earlier this month, played for the Wales Under-20s against France last year, at a time when it had been deemed the country's second-string team. Under International Rugby Board regulations, anyone playing for a Test team, a designated second XV or a senior seven-a-side team commits himself to that nation.

Chris Hewett

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