Authors: Rio Sports
Newcastle and Saracens are in Philadelphia, preparing to play at the Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday. The game may be more of a must-win for the Aviva Premiership than for either team, but whatever the crowd size or the American TV audience, early-season points are at stake.
“We had a day to rest and recover but some of the boys were off recreating Rocky, running up the steps,” said Dave Walder, the Falcons’ new head coach. Some Saracens also ran to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, up the stone slope made famous by Sylvester Stallone. As they did, Walder was plotting to bring them down.
“We’ve hit the ground running and that gives everyone a bit of confidence,” Walder, 39, said of wins over Worcester and Sale. Sarries are double European champions but in US sports speak they are one and one for the year.
“I say we stand a chance to win. They’ve probably had a disrupted pre-season, with so many of their players involved with the Lions and other internationals. You know it will be be very tough against Saracens every time, but we really look forward to this.”
Not so long ago, no Newcastle coach could have said that with confidence. There have been a few of them since Walder, who won four England caps, wore the Falcons fly-half shirt. While he was playing for Wasps and in Japan, then learning to coach with RGS Newcastle, Percy Park and more, the Falcons changed ownership, were relegated, appointed Dean Richards director of rugby and began at last to rebuild.
Walder came in to look after the kicking, then took over the backs. The team finished eighth last season and the back rower Mark Wilson went to tour Argentina. That was a plus for the region after a spell in which, another paper pointed out, more England players came from Germany than the north-east of England.
Walder says one key to such improvement is “consistency in the coaches. John Wells has been a constant” – the ex-England forwards coach switched from head coach to defence on Walder’s promotion last month – “and we’ve got Micky Ward who I played with, as forwards coach. He’s a local legend and a good friend.”
In the age of globalism, everything is local. That may be just as well. Newcastle are playing a home game in Philly and chances to see Independence Hall and sample a famous cheese steak aside, the switch has not been popular with all their fans.
This summer, a remark by the Saracens chief executive, Heath Harvey, gave flesh to suggestions that clubs with more political and financial muscle are more able to resist such a move. Sarries were the away team against London Irish in New Jersey in 2016. Should Premier Rugby ever make his club the home team, Harvey said, they would “take it on the chin”.
Newcastle’s balance sheet is not Walder’s chief concern. In the city of Rocky, he’s working out how to land blows on Saracens’ jaw. His squad have local heroes in every sense of the word. In the second row there is Nick Civetta from New York state, not far from Philly and thus of interest to NBC. In the back row there is Wilson – actually from Cumbria but in Walder’s joking words, “my fourth-favourite Geordie after Gazza, Peter Beardsley and Will Welch”. Welch, a flanker born in Newcastle, has been club captain since he was 22.
“Both of them have been absolutely outstanding,” Walder said. “If Will had got the nod too for Argentina, anyone who was surprised wouldn’t have been to Newcastle in my three years here. He’s been a brilliant leader. I think it’s great that we’re finally going to get better recognition.”
As, it seems, will Walder. Newcastle-born, educated at Durham University, he has wandered the rugby world. Now he’s home. “There were deep-rooted issues at the club when I left,” he said, “financially and in terms of whether the players were happy. It took Dean maybe two or three years to turn things round and last year for the first time we were able to recruit well, from being in mid-table at Christmas.
“Players want to go to a club either to win or to earn money. I think the game’s gone a bit mad with the money, to be honest. Some of the figures out there are amazing. We’re more after the right type of player to fit in.”
They think they have found them. A standout in the backs is the full-back Simon Hammersley, who also went to Durham. On Saturday afternoons in the late 1990s Walder learned his game there. The hard way.
“I remember the first time I played Horden away,” Walder says, of a proud club from a pit village long minus its pit. “My opposite number had a fend but it was just a left hook. I was stunned. And then afterwards, he bought me a beer in the bar.”
In a region with a healthy club rugby scene, Newcastle are forging strong links. There are community coaching programmes and the hooker Scott Lawson and the flanker Ally Hogg are in charge at Tynedale and Blaydon. Such commitment pays: Falcons’ crowds are up.
It’s a long way from pitched battles at Horden, Westoe and Billingham to the pitch at St James’ Park, home to Walder’s beloved Newcastle United and, tantalisingly, the final of next season’s European Rugby Champions Cup. It’s a longer way still to Philadelphia, where the European champions await.
“I want to be successful for Newcastle,” Walder says. “There’s a real bond to the place if you’re from there. I’m proud to represent it in America.”
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