Newcastle's revival raises spectre of relegation dogfight

Signs of life from Andrew's side have half the Premiership casting anxious glances towards the battle against relegation
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The Independent Online

It is a little under a fortnight since Francis Baron, the chief executive responsible for hauling the Rugby Football Union out of the 19th century and re-positioning it somewhere adjacent to the world in which the rest of us live, confirmed that someone will be relegated from the Premiership at the end of the season. While many believed him, others did not: after all, there has been more goalpost-shifting on this issue than you will see on Hackney Marshes tomorrow morning. But on the face of it, as things stand, so far as we can tell, the grim reaper awaits.

To borrow a line from the Gallagher brothers, it is one of those "definitely maybe" situations to which professional club rugby is magnetically attracted. While a clear majority of Premiership chairmen and head coaches are anti-relegation (they would be, wouldn't they?), a much smaller majority want to expand the Premiership immediately to incorporate the best of the rest from National League One: Rotherham and Worcester immediately, Orrell and one of the stronger teams from the far south-west, probably Exeter, as soon as practicable. Their views do not impress those of their colleagues who fear the central funding cake, now shrinking like a Victoria sponge left too long in the oven, being cut too many ways.

As there can be no firm decision on relegation before April – the RFU's independent audit of the promotion contenders, who must meet strict promotion criteria, will not be completed until the end of next month – the Premiership finds itself in the familiar position of operating in a vacuum. "We are on shifting sands, as usual," said Rob Andrew, the director of rugby at Newcastle, a week ago.

Andrew was speaking before his side's important, not to say crucial, home match with Harlequins, in which three highly significant things happened: the new £12m stand at Kingston Park was opened, Mark Andrews and a phalanx of fellow southern hemisphere imports took the field together for the first time, and Newcastle won. What is more, they won in spades, scoring four tries and registering only their second attacking bonus point of the season. As a result of all this, plus the home defeats suffered by everyone else in the bottom half of the table, the relegation dispute tilted on its axis and plunged half the Premiership into the mire. Suddenly, we are in fun-and-games territory.

If Saracens, seventh out of 12 going into this afternoon's encounter at Northampton, are not out of the nettles by any means – they have four home games left and generally perform pretty well at Vicarage Road, but they must travel a distinctly awkward road between now and the second weekend in May – those below them are necessarily more exposed. None more so than Quins, who are far from secure despite being five off the bottom. If anyone is contemplating the run-in from hell, they are.

The Londoners have three remaining home fixtures: against Sale, who are second and looking more dangerous by the week; against Leicester, who have obvious designs on a top three finish and a say in the title shake-up; and against Northampton, who, as the one side in the Premiership who are neither here nor there and with nothing much to think about, might be ripe for the picking. But that game is almost three months away. Before then, Quins must travel to Bristol, London Irish, Leeds and Gloucester – and they have not won a league match on the road since beating Rotherham in March 2001, 20 trips ago.

Mark Evans, who both coaches the team and runs the business end of the club, is one of those movers and shakers who remains convinced that relegation will be enforced. (He does not believe it should be enforced, but that is another matter). A month ago, he thought Newcastle were a long way up the Tyne without a paddle in terms of Premiership survival. Now, he is not so sure.

"I still believe that any side reaching 36 points will survive, and we are seven points away from that total," Evans said this week. "Even if Newcastle win the three home games left to them – and when they fancy it as a unit and Jonny Wilkinson is there to kick the goals, they are a right handful at Kingston Park – they might have no more than 33 or 34 come the end of the programme. But last weekend's combination of results changed the picture, definitely. The bottom six all know they could get dragged into this, and while Saracens and ourselves are probably one away win from getting out for good, the others cannot be confident of anything.

"There have been two obvious losers as a result of what happened on Saturday and Sunday: London Irish and Bristol. Irish would have gone into their home game with Sale with high hopes for themselves, while Bristol would very definitely have expected to beat Leeds on their own ground. They are involved in the relegation issue now, whether they like it or not. As for Bath and Newcastle, they both need to put together a run of decent performances, and put it together quickly. If they don't, their meeting on the last day of the season will be very live." To the point, Evans might have added, of leaving one of them for dead.

Suddenly, rugby's all-seeing eye is peering directly into the hearts and minds of the season's failures. Should Newcastle, freshly armed with a Springbok here and an All Black there, start picking up points – "They've been showing signs of finding some form since Christmas, to be honest," acknowledged Evans – the rest will be in a blind panic by Easter. Bath, whose performance against Leicester last weekend left their coach, Michael Foley, holding his nostrils – "It stank," the Australian snarled – look impotent, while London Irish have lost the element of surprise that allowed them to mug all-comers at the Madejski Stadium last term. They insist they have not been "worked out", that they have as much variety as the next team. The reality appears somewhat different.

Quins, meanwhile, have more injuries than any of their rivals. "When we played the Natal Sharks on Tuesday night, I had a dozen senior players unavailable," Evans said. "I know it was a friendly, but there was no way on earth I could have put any of those 12 on the field. I'm bitterly frustrated, because I know we are competitive when we are fit and healthy as a squad. It is just as well that we have some strength in depth, because without it, we'd be in all sorts of strife."

And then we have Bristol: unwelcome tenants in what used to be their own home and chronically short of cash, they are now wondering whether they have any kind of stake in professional rugby. Malcolm Pearce, their disenchanted owner, has declared his intention to cut the cord at the end of the campaign, and while Pearce has spent the last five years crying wolf on any number of subjects, few doubt his sincerity this time. Bristol have some terrific players, and when last September dawned, the Pichots and Contepomis and Whites and Gibsons and Christophers were not thinking in terms of 10th place and sinking. But is it possible to perform at anything like maximum pitch when you do not know whether you will still be in a job in three months? We are about to find out.

This time a fortnight ago, Newcastle looked buried – so completely buried that their rivals started feeling sorry for them in public. Suddenly, those rivals fear they will dig themselves out of the grave. Few people in positions of Premiership authority will see the amusing side of this, but we are about to experience the fun and frolics of a genuine relegation scrap. Now...where are those goalposts? They need moving.