Ollie Phillips: Under Richards Newcastle can be new Exeter
The story of Newcastle Falcons this term is an incredible one. At the start of the season a memorable campaign would have been to qualify for the European Champions Cup, but to be bound for the Premiership play-offs is extraordinary.
I remember writing in August that Newcastle were a side that had the potential to upset the applecart and surprise a few people, although I didnt think to this extent. Director of rugby Dean Richards is really building something special in the north-east.
To achieve what he has with a smaller budget than pretty much all the teams in and around Newcastle in the league is remarkable. They are potentially another Exeter; steady improvement since promotion in 2013 before ultimately competing for trophies.
It goes to show just how good a job Richards is doing when you look through Newcastles team. While wing duo Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti are lethal match-winners, not many others would feature in a Premiership best XV.
Thats why Newcastle are so good, both tactically and in terms of team atmosphere, and play so well together: the coaching staff are getting the absolute maximum – every single ounce – out of what is a good group with a sprinkling of stardust.
That said, there are some gems in that squad, talented players who produce week in, week out and should be on the radar of England head coach Eddie Jones and in contention for international honours.
Back-rower Mark Wilson made his Test debut against Argentina in June 2017 and is the only one who really gets a sniff with England, although I believe scrum-half Micky Young, fly-half Joel Hodgson and full-back Alex Tait have fantastic ability.
For me, Richards, who this week signed a new three-year contract with the club, is the director of rugby of the year, although he will always struggle for plaudits given his tarnished reputation from the Bloodgate scandal while at Harlequins.
You have to give him credit, though, as he has served his punishment, learnt from it and come back stronger. As a result his class and quality are shining through.
Richards will probably always face a glass ceiling, however, and is unlikely to ever be in the running for the England job, for instance – I wouldnt imagine the Rugby Football Union would take the reputational risk.
I dont necessarily agree with that as you shouldnt suffer forever and day once you have been punished and he is clearly showing himself to be a top quality coach, but I reckon he is at his limit now.
If he can turn Newcastle into a Premiership-winning side, replicating the achievement of the 1997-98 season, however, that would be immense and send a message to those who have criticised him – rightly so, initially – for so long.
But in terms of this season, I think the semi-finals is as far as Newcastle will probably go as whoever they face in last four, whether it be defending champions Exeter or Saracens, I believe will have too much for them.
Newcastle host third-placed Wasps in the final match of the regular season tomorrow, and if the Falcons can move ahead of them and face Sarries, that is probably their best chance of reaching Twickenham.
Ollie Phillips is leading a group of inspiring individuals to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro this October. To join him visit https://www.360-expeditions.com/expeditions/ollie-phillips-kilimanjaro/