A severe start for one of last season’s Premiership semi-finalists, Newcastle Falcons, has seen Dean Richards’ charges shoot from 2017/18 success story to a side languishing in 12th place following the first block of domestic action.
During their first six rounds of the inaugural Gallagher Premiership campaign, the Falcons have fallen afoul of Saracens, Leicester Tigers, Exeter Chiefs, Wasps and Sale Sharks, registering a singular win over former relegation rivals Worcester Warriors for a mere seven points following the culmination of their first block of Premiership commitments.
Newcastle’s European success will have tasted all the sweeter to the Kingston Park faithful given their early season concerns, with the Premiership’s most northern side claiming the sizable scalps of French giants Toulon and Montpellier.
While the toppling of Toulon in front of the Stade Mayol will have been slightly dampened by the former Champions Cup galacticos’ own struggles in the Top14, the Falcons’ turnover of Montpellier in extra time yesterday afternoon (Sunday) is a magnitude of victory no fan could contest.
The difficulty for Richards’ valiant Falcons squad is the league-to-league transference of form. If Newcastle can hit the ground running upon their return to the Premiership in three weeks time – following three rounds of Premiership Rugby Cup action – victories over Harlequins, Bath and Northampton Saints could well see them restored to mid-table contenders, on their way to a potential playoff return.
More than ever, the form of the Falcons’ backrow unit is crucial, with England duo Mark Wilson and Gary Graham keeping their side on a level with their opponents across all areas of the pitch via their trademark workhorse efforts and number eight pairing Nemani Nagusa and Ryan Burrows providing the powerful ball-carrying absent from the Newcastle pack for some years.
Although we are likely to learn the full extent of Wilson's influence over the next month, while the Falcons are likely to be without the four-times capped international while he contends with Wasps' Brad Shields for England starting berth on the blindside, likely unavailable until after the national side's ultimate Autumn fixture with Australia on the 24th of November, missing Newcastle's Premiership clashes against Harlequins (away) and Bath (home).
Equally, if not more so, important is the fine form currently being displayed by fly-half Joel Hodgson, who has stepped up and gone on to do more than just replace the injured Toby Flood, but outshine the 60-times-capped former Leicester and Toulouse standoff.
In addition to picking his moments in attack to fortuitous effect and maintaining a 100% success rate from the boot in Europe, Hodgson’s fine form will be key to a return to Premiership form while Flood recovers from a shoulder injury.
The form of former London Irish centre Johnny Williams will also be crucial for the Falcons. The 22-year-old has burst onto the scene for the first time since an impressive 2015/16 campaign with the Irish, filling in for the injured Josh Matavesi to tremendous effect.
Between defensive nous of a player years his senior, cutting runs through well-identified gaps in opposition’s defence and a level of physicality befitting a top draw Premiership inside centre, Williams' effectiveness alongside midfield partner Chris Harris will be another crucial cog in Newcastle’s attempted climb back up the Premiership ladder.
Hogdson and Williams release Callum Green and Mark Wilson for Newcastle's fourth-minute score against Montpellier. Credit: BT Sport