Newcastle Falcons are poised to unite both codes of rugby in the North East by taking over Gateshead Thunder.
The Journal can reveal that the Premiership rugby union outfit is actively engaged with acquiring the Championship One rugby league club, and that a meeting tomorrow night could put them well on the way to achieving their aim.
Members of Thunderstorm, Gateshead’s official supporters’ trust, will meet to hear representation from Gateshead Thunder’s managing director Keith Christie before voting on whether or not to accept a request to hand back their shares in the club.
That would put the Falcons on the path towards taking control of Thunder, whose league season gets under way this Sunday.
The eventual aim is to move them from Gateshead International Stadium, where they will still play this year, into the Falcons’ Kingston Park home.
The Journal understands the Falcons are harbouring no grand ambitions of mounting an instant assault on Super League, but the resumption of promotion and relegation to the code’s top division this year was a key marker in their decision to consider a takeover.
Gateshead had one season in the top flight back in 1999 before merging with Hull, but came back into existence as a semi-professional outfit playing in the third tier of the rugby league pyramid. Struggling with three successive bottom-of-the-league finishes, Gateshead’s fortunes improved somewhat last season when head coach Kevin Neighbour steered them to third-bottom in their division.
With Neighbour now pursuing a teaching career in New Zealand, Thunder have appointed Papua New Guinean legend Stanley Gene as their new coach, a role he combines with a position on the academy staff at Super League outfit Hull Kingston Rovers.
From the Falcons’ angle, The Journal understands their bid to take control of Gateshead Thunder is not aimed at any real integration of the two codes.
One insider virtually ruled out the prospect of Falcons players turning out for Thunder or vice-versa, Newcastle seeing the move as a means by which to stabilise a Gateshead club which has endured significant off-field turmoil.
Indeed, Thunder played ‘home’ games at four different venues last season due to the unavailability of Gateshead Stadium, and the move to a regular and rugby-specific venue like Kingston Park appears to make sense.
The state of the Kingston Park pitch and the fact only three years remain on the existing lease from landlords Northumbria University are both hurdles to be overcome, but neither is insurmountable.
Rugby league’s summer scheduling would ensure the venue is used for the full year, allowing the Falcons to sweat the asset on ticket sales and bar takings during the fallow months in the union calendar.
Newcastle already have significant rugby league expertise within their managerial ranks, not least in the fact that Thunder managing director Christie is part of the club’s commercial and marketing team.
Mick Hogan, formerly chief executive with Super League champions Wigan Warriors, has been drafted in as the Falcons’ commercial consultant following last year’s departure of chief executive Paul Varley, and served on Thunder’s staff during their brief flirtation with Super League.
Crowds at that stage averaged just under the 4,000 mark, Thunder finishing the season a respectable sixth in the table and fielding a host of players who would go on to great things in the 13-man code.
The chances of those days returning are not uppermost in the Falcons’ thinking in terms of acquiring the rugby league outfit, and no real plans for cross-pollenation between the two squads are envisaged.
That comes despite England rugby league international Lee Smith being on the Newcastle playing staff and former Great Britain league full-back Graham Steadman forming a key part of the coaching team, the Falcons also home to former Brisbane Broncos and New Zealand Warriors winger Ryan Shortland.
Falcons duo James Fitzpatrick and Chris Pilgrim have joined Leeds Carnegie, with the signings due to be announced today by the Championship club.