Newcastle Falcons are hitting the heights in more ways than one, yesterday’s Aviva Premiership fixture launch at the top of the BT Tower handing them a home tie with Bath to kick off the new campaign.
Back in the top flight after Falcons swept all before them during the most fleeting of visits to the RFU Championship, Dean Richards was in the capital yesterday at the official season unveiling.
The director of rugby, already a four-time Premiership winner during his time in charge of Leicester, will come up against his predecessor in week one as Newcastle host Gary Gold’s Bath at Kingston Park on Friday, September 6.
The 7.45pm kick-off represents the first foray into rugby for the new BT Sport channel, although the Falcons remain committed to their stated preference for predominantly Sunday afternoon action.
The visit of the West Country outfit is the only one of the Championship winners’ first seven fixtures to be selected for TV viewing, the direct opposite of a Bath team for whom all but one of their initial tranche will be beamed to the nation.
That is perhaps a reflection on the profile of a Falcons side still searching for box-office appeal, despite Richards steadily assembling a group for whom unity and continuity will be among the main assets.
Richards said: “It is going to be a baptism of fire back in the Aviva Premiership.
“Bath at home followed by Sale and Leicester away – it doesn’t get much harder than that.
“There are no easy games, though, and I’ve told the boys this. Bath at home will be a very good indication of where we’re at as a club and where we need to improve during the season if we’re going to be competitive.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, it’s more about when you play them.
“Having Bath at home on a Friday night at the start of the season probably plays more into their hands if you look at the squad they possess, but the Premiership can change very quickly.”
Despite old maxims about no easy games and playing everybody twice, as draws go, Newcastle’s does not look a bad one.
At home in week one and with a dash to Sale Sharks the week after, they then face a Leicester side shorn of their Lions for the summer before hosting Gloucester in the final weekend of September.
The Cherry and White band could include departing Falcon James Hudson, before October’s two league games see them up against sides tipped to be dogging it out towards the lower reaches of the standings.
Worcester, now under the stewardship of Newcastle’s title-winning captain Dean Ryan, host the Kingston Park crew on Saturday October 5, while a London Irish squad containing ex-Newcastle hooker Michael Mayhew travels north eight days later.
The November test window has them up against Saracens and Northampton, both of whom can expect to have players away on international duty, while the festive fixture list has handed them home ties against London Wasps and Sale Sharks.
After January the going gets tougher with Bath, Harlequins, Northampton and Leicester in successive weeks, but with two of their last three games coming at home it is a draw they would surely have taken.
The regular-season’s final round on Saturday, May 10 has Exeter making the league’s longest round trip at 740 miles, by which time the Premiership new-boys will be hoping to have at least maintained their top-flight status.
Clearly the long-term ambitions are significantly loftier, but consolidation in year one should be taken as progress for a side whose last six Premiership seasons were all spent in the bottom four.
Richards said: “I’m not starting the season with a goal in mind. I hope we don’t go down and – probably barring the top four or five clubs, everybody has that fear each season.
“It’s such a tough competition and I hope we don’t get sucked into a relegation battle, because it’s difficult to escape from. I know if we play as well as we can do and the new guys involved gel quickly, hopefully we’ll have enough to stay up, I’m confident about that.”
Before that begins comes all the fun of the sevens fair, neatly tied in with yesterday’s 15-a-side launch.
Denied the chance to defend their 2011 JP Morgan Premiership Sevens title as a result of their relegation, the Falcons take London Welsh’s place in the Northampton leg of the competition on Friday, August 2, where they are pooled with the Saints, Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks.
The top two on the night will qualify for the finals in Bath on Friday, August 9, Richards saying: “The 7s is an important introduction for us into the season because it’s about utilising the open spaces, and that transfers itself into the 15s game.
“It is an opportunity for me to look at some of the younger players in the squad, assess who is ready to play in the first team and see how they perform alongside some of my more established players.”
:: The JP Morgan Premiership Rugby 7s kicks off on August 1 at Kingsholm with rounds at Franklin’s Gardens and Allianz Park and the Final at The Recreation Ground.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS' 2013-14 AVIVA PREMIERSHIP FIXTURES
(Home games in bold capitals)
Friday, Sept 6: BATH (7.45pm, live on BT Sport)
Friday, Sept 13: Sale Sharks (7.45pm)
Saturday, Sept 21: Leicester Tigers (3pm)
Sunday, Sept 29: GLOUCESTER (3pm)
Saturday, Oct 5: Worcester (3pm)
Sunday, Oct 27: LONDON IRISH (3pm)
Saturday, Nov 2: Saracens (3pm)
Saturday, Nov 23: Northampton Saints (3pm)
Sunday, Dec 1: HARLEQUINS (3pm)
Saturday, Dec 21: Exeter Chiefs (3pm)
Friday, Dec 27: LONDON WASPS (TBC)
Friday, Jan 3: SALE SHARKS (7.45pm)
Saturday, Feb 8: Bath (3pm)
Saturday, Feb 15: Harlequins (3pm)
Sunday, Feb 23: NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (3pm)
Sunday, Mar 2: LEICESTER TIGERS (3pm)
Saturday, Mar 22: Gloucester (3pm)
Sunday, Mar 30: WORCESTER WARRIORS (3pm)
Sunday, Apr 13: London Irish (3pm)
Sunday, Apr 20: SARACENS (3pm)
Saturday, May 3: London Wasps (3pm)
Saturday, May 10: EXETER CHIEFS (3pm)
(All dates and times are subject to change for TV or club re-scheduling)