Newcastle Falcons’ marriage with the Premiership went the way of many last year with a season-long separation. But the two are back together, trying to find out whether or not they can make a go of it.
The early spark was certainly there, being the first and still the only team to win English rugby’s top flight at the first attempt back in 1998, immediately after their promotion.
That flame, fuelled by Sir John Hall’s millions and an appetite to hoover up the game’s top talent in the early throes of professionalism, quickly flickered in a subsequent decade which saw scrapes with relegation becoming a near-annual ordeal.
In May 2012 the trap door finally opened on the league’s most northerly outpost but, after a season of self-flagellation in the second tier, they are back.
Shorn of the galacticos so synonymous with their rise 16 years ago, it does at least seem a house built on former foundations. You might have to do a bit of digging to find the box-office lustre with which they will draw in the floating voters, but a stable ship based on continuity and homegrown talent is capable of generating its own momentum if given the required patience.
That was largely the model favoured by director of rugby Dean Richards during his time with Harlequins and, while there is still ample scope for wheeling and dealing before the league kicks off on September 6, their business to date suggests a similar strategy.
On the face of it four more outs than ins might appear to signal a squad short on numbers, although the fringe status of some of those departing should be taken into consideration. So too must the late-season additions of Noah Cato and Adam Powell, not to mention the welter of local talent added into the senior academy pool.
Teenage flyer Zach Kibirige is free to take a fuller part in proceedings after his try-a-game ratio in last season’s fistful of appearances, national student champions Durham University have delivered a couple of graduates and links with local clubs and schools see the supply lines fully stocked.
Of the nine senior signings, almost half are Scottish. Given Newcastle’s geography and the disappearance of the Borders franchise it is a trend which makes sense, even if the influx is more down to coincidence than any conscious desire to promote themselves as Scotland’s unofficial third region.
Mike Blair, for one, adds proven international class, and even at the age of 32 the 85-times-capped scrum-half has the legs to do the job. He certainly has the brain and, with countryman Rory Lawson retiring through injury, his tactical acumen will be vital in fighting their way out of some fairly dark corners.
Scott Lawson provides another oven-ready solution, showing up well on Scotland’s summer tour and boasting plenty of Premiership experience. With Rob Vickers, Matt Thompson and George McGuigan all still on the books, the added hooking strength is most welcome.
Fraser McKenzie’s bulk in the back-five engine room is augmented by the arrival of England Under-20s’ World Cup-winning lock Dom Barrow, and in Saracens’ Andy Saull they have an openside capable of becoming the bane of referees and opponents alike.
Another interesting trend in the summer recruitment is the boomerang effect, with three of the Falcons’ eight additions being players who have previously departed for pastures new.
Leicester’s Kieran Brookes brings ball-carrying destruction and bags of potential in his second spell, while fly-halves Phil Godman and Rory Clegg return as part of the solution for life after Jimmy Gopperth.
The Kiwi marksman’s departure to Leinster was known in ample time to come up with an answer and, rather than going for broke on a single stellar name, Richards has spread the load. Local prodigy Joel Hodgson should have more than a say in who starts the season at No 10, Clegg now has a Premiership winner’s medal on his mantlepiece from his time at Harlequins, and Godman the experience of a seasoned campaigner for club and country.
Whether that is ultimately enough to get the job done remains the burning question, and the Falcons are understandably avoiding bold predictions.
Don’t expect them to say it, but survival this season must be the goal. Avoid the bottom spot, consolidate Premiership status and build again next year. Anything more is a bonus and, while slow progress might not make for Hollywood scripts, it seems fundamental to the long-term picture.
The doubters are out there, and early odds from one bookmaker has the Falcons as 9-4 favourites to end the season bottom of the pile.
The way Richards choose to use such external adversity could hold the key, with siege mentality and physical attrition among their numerous attributes. Become hard to break down, keep a tight defensive line, and they are halfway there.
They certainly have the region behind them, and a North East public who once took Premiership rugby for granted have been reinvigorated by their Championship triumph and the return of household opposition.
Retaining such support will be essential should the early weeks provide slim pickings, but the blocks are gradually moving into place for the Falcons to hang on during this most crucial of seasons.