Club’s coaches have a vital part to play if Newcastle are to win all three of their remaining games to stay in the Premiership
In principle, Newcastle’s job is straightforward. Considering the season they have had it is easier said than done but they must win all three of their remaining games, starting at home against Northampton on Friday . If they can achieve that I believe they will stay in the Premiership and it is up to the coaches to hammer home the message that the situation is not yet terminal.
They have to get the technical aspect of the performances right but the biggest task is to alleviate the pressure on the players’ shoulders. Only by doing that can they think about achieving 80-minute performances, and they need three of them. The enormity of the situation can weigh so heavily on the players it inhibits their ability to think clearly and execute their skills.
When I was relegated with Harlequins in 2005 it was a slightly different situation – it was in our hands with five matches to go but a combination of factors meant we went down regardless. We changed our defensive system that season, it was poorly coached and it meant that defensively we were awful. As players we had to hold our hands up, we didn’t play well enough, but towards the end of the season the coaches panicked and the group splintered.
Newcastle’s coaches cannot afford to panic. There can be a misconception that you need to spend more time on the training pitch, because hard work can solve everything, but far more important is smart work. This is an incredibly tight league and it is the small margins they should be looking for.
First, though, the players must not go within themselves for fear of making mistakes, they must not start pointing figures or allowing corridor chats with the forwards blaming the backs or vice versa to take place. It is so important you stay united amid all the negativity and anxiety.
Newcastle have suffered for many different reasons. Part of the problem is just how successful they were last season. On the back of that – just as Kingston Park was selling out on a regular basis, just as they were getting used to the heightened attention, the pats on the back, the positive effect they were having on the community – they have plummeted. They haven’t had the same budget as last season and they have had a brutal amount of injuries. Newcastle’s attack was fantastic last term but they have been without their two superstar wings Niki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti for large spells and Joel Hodgson’s absence at fly-half has been a major problem as well.
If they do get relegated, and it is still an if, I worry about the club’s future. In 2005 Harlequins’ owners made the commitment that they would keep everyone on the same wages and so we were able to retain the spine of the team. We had signed Andrew Mehrtens, we had top-class players such as Will Greenwood, André Vos was our captain, and we had a lot of emerging talent in Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and Jordan Turner‑Hall. It was the birth of the 2012 Premiership-winning team but I have to admit I was unsure about staying.
I had just been selected to go on the England summer tour – my career was going one way and the club were going the opposite. Once I sat down with the incoming director of rugby, Dean Richards, and the chief executive, Mark Evans, and I understood everyone was going to stay on board it made the decision a bit easier but careers are short and you have to maximise your opportunities.
I didn’t think I would be picked for England in the Championship and it turned out I was right. Ultimately, I wanted to play for my country and I was fortunate to be able to achieve that but it took that much longer to do it. Players such as Mark Wilson will have to make those decisions if Newcastle are relegated and I do not know if they will be lucky enough to retain all their players as we were.
It’s not just the players, either – relegation means staff throughout the club will be made redundant, it affects the community work the club can afford to do, the schools pathway is stunted and so from a purely business perspective I understand ringfencing the Premiership makes a huge amount of sense.
The problem I have with ringfencing is that the essence of sport is about winners and losers. I look at the recent match between Leicester and Newcastle and it was the biggest game of the season, the one I have enjoyed commentating on the most, and that is because of the drama, which came about because of the consequences for both sides. As a result, I’m a huge fan of promotion and relegation and that’s coming from someone who has experience of both.
On top of that, ringfencing cannot be used simply as a safety net for clubs conducting bad business, or spending more money – mainly on ever-increasing player wages – than they can afford. If you get things wrong from a business point of view there has to be a consequence. Spending money you don’t have doesn’t wash for me.
If you want to introduce ringfencing I want to know why. If it’s to advocate more bad business I’m not a fan, if you want to ringfence to create even better competition and allow the Premiership to be a healthy breeding ground to accelerate the progress of our England Under-20s then I can see its merits. In my opinion it should come with the caveat of a rule that limits the number of overseas players – say a maximum of three in a match-day squad. There’s no point in ringfencing with the stated intention of seeing more English players in the Premiership all the while spending more and more on overseas signings.
The Premiership clubs have had the cash injection from CVC which is supposed to be spent on infrastructure but already we’re seeing players coming in next season who were previously valued at X but whose value is now inflated by 20%‑30% because of CVC’s investment. Whether ringfencing materialises or not we cannot continue to have teams overspending, because it simply isn’t sustainable.