After taking a break from being perennial relegation contenders in the 2016-17 campaign, last season Newcastle Falcons finished in the top four for the first time since 1998. But with such a strong set of teams involved in the upcoming campaign, the men from up North face a difficult job to retain their spot. Josh Bartholomew wonders whether they can do so.
Last Season: Newcastle’s 4th place finish in 2017-18 was eminently surprising. Armed with a powerful pack and a fighting spirit, Dean Richards’ men were able to bring playoff rugby to secure play-off rugby for their Kingston Park faithful.
Strengths: Falcons will benefit from the continuity of their squad – few of the new acquisitions will improve their starting XV. In the forward pack, Newcastle have a number of solid, hard-working men who will help to power their side down the pitch. In Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti, Falcons have arguably the best set of wingers in the Gallagher Premiership.
Weaknesses: The problem for Newcastle is that, in such a competitive league, they will have to rely on individual quality more than ever. And unfortunately, Falcons don’t possess such quality. They rely on Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti for their tries, while their forward-pack, though capable, cannot win their team games on its own.
Recruitment Rating: In acquiring Logovi’i Mulipola and George McGuigan from Leicester, Dean Richards has ensured that his front-row will be adept in coping with the demands of the Premiership. Elsewhere, the signing of Johnny Williams is an interesting one, but the loss of Juan Pablo Socino will be a profound one, as well as a number of big-name players including DTH van der Merwe and Maxi Mermoz, meaning Newcastle’s transfer business is worth only 7/10.
Key Man: In a back-line shorn of quality, Scotland international Chris Harris will play an important role in Falcons’ attempt to maintain their top four position. The centre will be vital in linking Toby Flood with Newcastle’s pivotal wingers. Sonatane Takalua is one of the most underrated players in the league and must continue to create opportunities for the men outside him.
Young gun to watch: In a forward pack of steady workhorses, expect Will Witty to continue his outstanding progress from last season. New recruit Johnny Williams can add power to the back-line, and academy flyer Adam Radwan can benefit from the lack of a clear back-up to Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti.
Prediction: As heart-warming as Newcastle’s run to the playoffs last season was, it’s difficult to see them continuing their progress. Last year they hugely over-achieved, and with a number of underperforming teams looking to bounce back, as well as the fact that Falcons haven’t improved their side greatly, it’s difficult to look past Newcastle finishing 9th.
Ins: Guy Graham (Hawick), Tom Arscott (Rouen), Logovi’i Mulipola, George McGuigan (both Leicester Tigers), Johnny Williams (London Irish), Connor Collett (North Harbour), Nemani Nagusa (Aurillac), Pedro Bettencourt (Carcassonne), Paul Mullen (Houston SaberCats)*.
Outs: Juan Pablo Socino (Edinburgh), Harrison Orr (Western Force), DTH van der Merwe, Andrew Davidson** (both Glasgow Warriors), Belisario Agulla (Hindu Club, Craig Willis, Max Davies ( both Ealing Trailfinders), Jake Ilnicki (Yorkshire Carnegie), Nick Civetta, Cameron Cowell*** (both Doncaster Knights), Maxime Mermoz (Toulouse), Nili Latu (Hino Red Dolphins), Evan Olmstead (Auckland), Ben Sowrey (Wharfedale), Rob Vickers, Ally Hogg, Scott Lawson, Scott Wilson (all retired).
*Paul Mullen joined Newcastle on a short-term deal
**Andrew Davidson left Newcastle to play for Glasgow Warriors on a short-term deal
***Cameron Cowell left Newcastle to play for Doncaster Knights on a season-long loan