Newcastle Falcons Play-off Chances Hang on Gloucester Clash

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24: Dean Richards, director of Rugby for the Newcastle Falcons watches on prior to the Aviva Premiership match between Harlequins and Newcastle Falcons at Twickenham Stoop on February 24, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images)

A year ago and the idea that Gloucester vs Newcastle Falcons could decide a top four spot would have been frankly laughable. Whilst Bath will have something to say about this, these two are the shock contenders for a play-off place. Having just moved into the top four after Gloucester’s draw with Wasps, the Newcastle Falcons play-off charge will be tested at Kingsholm on Saturday.

Gloucester have the only unbeaten home record in the league, and will be desperate to maintain this and climb back up to fourth. They have worked hard at it, so Newcastle must be at the best–and many will say they currently are.

Falcons form since Gloucester defeat

A crucial point in Newcastle’s season came against Gloucester back in November. The Cherry and Whites shrugged off their usual poor away form to claim a 29-7 bonus point win. Since then, the Falcons have gone on a remarkable run of form and have only lost one league game, against Saracens.

Their match against Harlequins last weekend went under the radar, in competition with the Six Nations and more dramatic matches in the Aviva Premiership. That a 28-10 bonus point away win doesn’t register as a shock speaks volumes for the progress made at Kingston Park, even since the start of this season.

Chris Harris of the Newcastle Falcons celebrates scoring a try with team mates during the Aviva Premiership match between Harlequins and Newcastle Falcons at Twickenham Stoop on February 24, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images)
So how has this happened?

Dean Richards long-term view

We have to go back a lot further than November to find the real catalyst for the Newcastle Falcons play-off challenge. The origins of this resurgence are better traced from 2012/13 season, when Dean Richards (see main picture) become Director of Rugby following the club’s relegation to the Championship.

Richards had just completed a three year ban from his involvement in the Harlequins Bloodgate scandal. He surely set himself the mission of redeeming himself, and regaining respect in the rugby world.

In year two, following a comfortable promotion year, Premiership survival was secured. A further two seasons of 11th place finishes followed, but Richards always seemed confident that performances would eventually catch up with results.

Record Crowds and New Heights

After an eighth place finish last season, Newcastle are now serious contenders for a Champions Cup place. Inevitably, this has helped to bring the punters in. The Falcons sold out Kingston Park for the first time since 2008 against Leicester last October.

Acknowledging that support, the Falcons are now going to set a home crowd record, when Northampton visit at the end of March. This fixture has been moved to the city’s football stadium and they are on course to attract 20,000 fans to St James’ Park.

Gloucester vs Newcastle Falcons

Whilst the Falcons are in fantastic form, it would probably still be an upset if they win at Kingsholm on Saturday. Exeter, Saracens and Wasps have all tried and failed to win there, with Pau the only side in any competition to leave with a win.

Gloucester will be frustrated that they let their lead slip against Wasps, and that their long-running mental frailties [may have] re-emerged in recent weeks. They have slipped to sixth but, can immediately climb above Newcastle on the Aviva table with a win.

Johan Ackermann is facing another injury crisis in the back division, and will hope Willi Heinz and Henry Trinder will be available. Skipper Heinz in particular, brings leadership and direction to the attacking play, whilst Trinder will need to continue his makeshift winger role in the face of multiple injuries.

A ‘cracker match-up’ is in store then. The freezing weather is likely to affect the game though, so minimising handling errors will be a key factor in deciding a winner.

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