Newcastle’s director of rugby Dean Richards is clearly relishing being back amongst the big time, and has wasted no time in ruffling feathers as, while speaking at the official Aviva Premiership launch, he claims this year’s competition will be dominated by just three teams, rather than four – like last season. But which of the Tigers, Saracens, Saints and Quins does he see dropping out of the elite into the mid-table battle?
“I think the top four last season will become a top three this year,” he opined controversially. “This middle group of five or six that was there last year will become a middle group of nine. I think any one of those nine can beat each other on their day.
“I think that Saracens, Northampton and Leicester are still a little bit of a class apart and are up there for people to aspire to. The other nine will be beating each other week in week out, and occasionally if we do get a win over one of the top three that will be fantastic.”
Obviously his exit from Quins was acrimonious, to say the least, but it is fascinating that he is willing to go on record before the season even begins to say his old club will drop down the pecking order this season. Evidently Richards’ bullish behaviour hasn’t changed, but has he noticed anything different in the Premiership since his time at the former champions?
“The big (change) is obviously the scrum laws, but you’ve also got a new willingness to experiment. Whereas 10 years ago it was a very structured game I think it’s now opened up quite a bit which is very pleasing.”
He is under no illusions about the step-up that his squad will need to make to survive life in England’s top league, and it is the ability to be able to take on the top teams week in week out that he thinks is most important.
“What you find is at Championship level you do play games that are at the level of the Premiership, but there isn’t the consistency of those games throughout the season,” he said. “As a consequence your goal-setting in the Championship is very different – you go there to win every game. It’s slightly different in the Premiership, especially for us – we haven’t got the squad that others have got, but I’m very happy with the squad we do have.
“Our goal is, and always will be, not looking long-term at where we want to be at the end of the year, but to come out in every game, be competitive in every game and win every game. In terms of the coaches, they’ve been set the task of getting a side together that will go out with the ambition and the ability to win every game.”
It has been a busy summer at Kingston Park, with the backroom team working hard to recruit players with Premiership experience and beyond. Former Scottish international Mike Blair is probably the most high-profile new arrival to the Toon, but Richards is excited about his squad in general.
“We’ve got Scott Wilson that’s coming through, Dominic Burrow that we’ve picked up from Leeds, and Zack Kibirige – so there’s a host of youngsters that are complementing the existing players,” he said. “When you add that to the Mike Blairs of this world there’s a real blend of experience and youth, and hopefully that will stand us in good stead, because I think the side is far more balanced this year than it has been – certainly than it was last year and the year before that.”
These days there is a lot of talk of ‘fortresses’ when discussing home grounds, and although Richards notes the long journey up to Kingston Park for opposing sides as undoubtedly a good thing for the Falcons, he is quick to point out that this is something that works both ways.
“You could look at it conversely in terms of every second week we travel away from home, and we have to do that same trip every second week,” he noted. “It’s not about trying to create a fortress, it’s about going out there and trying to win every game, and if we wanted to create a fortress and forget about the culture and our values and our mission statement then we probably would have played more often on a Friday night.
“For us though, we’re going to try and play most of our games on a Sunday and make it a very inclusive club that families can come along to and enjoy. Sunday is rugby day – the kids will go to their clubs in the morning, then hopefully they’ll come to us in the afternoon. Friday nights – 7.45 or 8pm KOs – it works for some clubs, but there’s a geographical problem up at Newcastle in that if people want to come from Cumbria that’s an hour and half, 2 hours’ journey, and if you finish at 11 every night that’s a long way back.”
One of the biggest talking points heading into the new season has been the new scrummaging laws, and while Richards is positive about the intentions behind the law changes, he is less convinced of their eventual effectiveness.
“I think one of the biggest issues was the lateness of the call in terms of the interpretations of the rules, from the IRB,” he said. “Because it’s come too late, people haven’t been able to address some interpretations and styles through pre-season. If we had had that time, then you would have been able to go into the season feeling a little more comfortable – there are people that have been chasing their tails a little bit, and it doesn’t bode well for the scrums for the rest of the season. For all intents and purposes though it’s been done for the right reasons, for safety reasons, and if it is then hopefully it’ll come through.”
The Premiership will be a richer competition for the return of Richards, and do not be surprised to see his abrasive, bullish nature seeping into this Newcastle team as they claim the scalps of a few big guns – perhaps just not the newly riled-up Harlequins.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images