Steve Bates: 'Hurdles have been thrown in our way'

Steve Bates taught Jonny Wilkinson and jump-started the professional era at Newcastle. Now, though, his Falcons are in freefall. Simon Turnbull reports
Click to follow

The statement issued by the Rugby Football Union's management board on Wednesday did not mention him by name but the "congratulations" offered on the results achieved by his team could be read as a tacit vote of confidence. Certainly, 24 hours on, the England coach was going about his business with little doubt that he would be at the helm for the summer sojourn overseas.

Yes, everything in the red-rose garden would appear to be blooming very nicely for Steve Bates, the coach of England Saxons, emphatic winners against the second strings of Ireland and Italy last month and destined for the Churchill Cup in Canada and the USA in June.

Not that the one-time England scrum-half, who collected a solitary cap against Romania in Bucharest in 1989, is unable to empathise with the plight of Brian Ashton, head coach of the red-rose senior team (for the time being, at least) and one-time scrum-half bench-warmer for England, as an unused replacement for the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham in 1975. Indeed, the man in charge of the national feeder team happens to be ideally placed to appreciate the uncertainty that Ashton is presently enduring. Away from the international scene, Bates has been working in something of a state of limbo himself.

Following the abrupt departure of John Fletcher from Newcastle Falcons two weeks and four days ago, Rob Andrew's old Wasps half-back partner has been left holding the reins at Kingston Park. Bates has the title of interim director of rugby but the job would appear to be his for the permanent grasping. That is, it will be if he can give the Falcons the kind of backbone that Dave Thompson, the club's owner and chairman, lamented as having gone missing when the announcement was made that Fletcher and forwards coach Peter Walton had left "by mutual consent". "We may have been perceived as being too nice and too cosy," Thompson said. Bates needs to show signs between now and the season's end of a return to the kind of glory days Newcastle enjoyed when he was coach and Andrew was director of rugby and the 1998 Premiership trophy and 2001 Tetley's Bitter Cup went proudly on display at the north-east outpost.

Not that Bates puts it in quite the same terms.

"Well..." he says, pausing for thought as he ponders the question of what he might have to do to secure a long-term shift to the main man's role from the post of coaching and technical director that he has fulfilled since returning to Kingston Park last June after four years coaching the Border Reivers in Scotland. "I think it's about saying to the chairman, 'Look, this is the way that I think we should go forward,' and in discussions with him and the board agreeing that that strategy is an achievable and a valid one and meets with this club's ambition – and then basically for the chairman to make a decision on whether he thinks I'm the person to implement that strategy. I guess if the board and the chairman have confidence in the fact that I can do that, then I think we can come to a positive decision."

It would help Bates' cause if results were to take a positive turn. He has not exactly enjoyed the best start, suffering a 28-8 home defeat against Bristol – with Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Mathew Tait and Jamie Noon away on Six Nations duty – and then a 16-15 loss to Leeds at Headingley, conceding an eighth-second try. The crestfallen Falcons travel to play the buoyant Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop today on a run of four defeats and with a depressing record of one victory on the road in the Guinness Premiership since November 2006.

That lone away win, against Saracens at Vicarage Road in late December, was achieved in some style, with Wilkinson and the England backs outside him in razor-sharp form and the forwards pulling their full weight. It showed the true sum of Newcastle's parts. The fact that they haven't added up to greater success on the Premiership scene has been a source of both the frustration that prompted the chairman to make further back-room changes (Steve Black was relieved of his job as fitness advisor earlier in December), and of hope of better things ahead. Since Thompson, a former hooker for the local junior club Novocastrians, succeeded Sir John Hall as chairman and owner in 1999, the Falcons have failed to get above the sixth rung of the Premiership ladder. They are 10th at present, with the glimmer of a silver lining in the European Challenge Cup. They entertain Castres in the quarter-finals a week tonight.

"I think when we started what we wanted to do was create a side that would be one of the best in Europe," Bates says, considering the Newcastle Falcons project from the fledgling days of 1995-96, when he and Andrew were in the vanguard of the professional era, to the uncertain present and his vision for the future. "A number of hurdles have been thrown in our way since then. Sir John starting the club on a great footing and then relinquishing control was a bit of a difficult period. I left in 2003 for a while and I'm really pleased to be back and hopefully will be here for a bit longer. But our ambition still remains the same. We want to be a leading club in Europe and I still think we have got a lot of potential to do that.

"We've got to understand that the level of competition is now huge, particularly in the European environment, where some of the French clubs are spending significant sums of money. But I think it's important that we have that ambition and that we continue to develop. And I'm very confident that we have a squad of players here that are as good as anybody. I think on our day we've proved that. When we get it right – and it's not a massive forward step, in my view – we will be very competitive."

It is a measure of Bates' ability that his Borders team (budget £1m) were holding Biarritz (budget circa £12m) 17-17 until the dying minutes, away from home in the Heineken Cup last season. In his time north of the border, after Andrew offloaded him from Newcastle four years ago, he also guided Scotland A to victory against England Saxons in the 2006 Churchill Cup. The 45-year-old, born in Merthyr Tydfil but raised in Hertfordshire, was so well thought of that he finished a close second to Frank Hadden in the race for the Scotland head coach's job.

If the priority now for Bates is to steady a somewhat rocky boat – some Newcastle players having registered in public their unease about the departure of Fletcher and Walton – he can cast his mind back 12 months for a sense of perspective. A year ago on Thursday he was left dealing with a squad facing unemploy-ment when the Scottish Rugby Union announced its intention to disband the Borders.

"The reasons for the two guys leaving here have been well publicised," Bates says. "I think in some ways they are wholly understandable, but that wasn't my decision. My responsibility is to take us forward.

"Some of that is trying to ease the transition from what's happened. I think there's an element where the sort of disruption that we've experienced has been mentally quite tough for a lot of players, because they have spent a lot of time with both John and Pete and they're very popular guys. It hasn't been the easiest couple of weeks but I think the guys have done a really good job. We have to look forward. Professional sport is an environment where you can't afford to stand still for too long."

Nobody at Kingston Park is more aware of that than the national treasure Bates unearthed when he was rugby master at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire. Jonny Wilkinson was 16 then. He is only 28 now, although judging by some recent critiques you could be excused for thinking he had reached pensionable age.

"Jonny is the highest points scorer ever in Test rugby," Bates says. "That means he's won a lot of games for England and it seems to me that people forget that far too quickly in the race to say, 'Here's a sparkling new talent; let's push him forward as the guy to save English rugby.' Well, I'm not too sure that English rugby needs saving and I don't think the problems in the Six Nations were caused solely by Jonny. I think he has taken a lot of unfair stick. I'm sure he's got a lot more rugby to play for England, maybe with Danny Cipriani in the side as well."