Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - Newcastle Thunderfalcons

Newcastle Falcons' new pitch arrives just in
time for the new season
Rugby League life’s not been easy for the long-suffering Thunder army. Launched in 1999 as Gateshead Thunder, the club had one season in the Super League before being packed off lock, stock and Newcy Brown barrel to Humberside to wear irregularly hooped shirts and convince the black and white half of Hull that they were actually Hull FC.

Gateshead Thunder were reported to have lost £700,000 during their one year in Super League. They took a £1.25 million incentive from Super League Europe to go to Hull.

A new Gateshead Thunder sprang back up in their place to play in the Northern Ford Premiership in 2001. The new board said they’d be back in Super League within five years. They finished third bottom under coach Andy Kelly, beating only Hunslet, York  and amateurs Wigan St. Judes in the Cup.

Ambitions for the 2002 season fell apart  after only two months. Having gained only one point (a 12–all draw against Fev), the club hit the buffers. Amid spiralling debts, Thunder went into administration: coach Andy Kelly and the club's 15 Yorkshire-based players, were released from their contracts. Club sponsor Mike Jeffels’ Kicks Leisure company took over the club, former Bramley coach Paul Fletcher was brought in to assemble a side from local community clubs. They lost every game to finish bottom of the table.

In 2003, Thunder went from the cor-blimey to the ridiculous. Eight Australians were added to the squad, along with Bill Ryan as a coaching adviser. After just eight games of the season, Kicks Leisure pulled the plug, chairman Steve Worsnop left the club and new coach Rob Jones refused to work with the first team following a dispute with the remaining contracted players. Thunder had debts reportedly in excess of £50,000. A supporters committee took over the running of the club and got it back on the rails - just - to complete the season.

2004 to 2007 saw some stability underwritten by Essex-based financier Neil MacPherson, who reastored the club’s limited company, status. The club rewarded coach Dean Thomas for steering the club into the playoffs two years running by replacing him with Aussie Dave Woods.

In 2008 Gateshead were promoted to National League One as champions, but almost immediately the madness began again. Dave Woods sacked under strange circumstances, Chris Hood put in charge, replaced by Steve McCormack who grabbed enough wins to avoid the drop - only for  new owner Steve Garside to wind-up the parent company Gateshead and Newcastle Rugby Ltd in October 2009. Having breached insolvency regulations Thunder were dumped back into Championship 1.

Rugby League’s least edifying soap-opera continued. A new parent company founded by  previous chairman Rod Findlay, Assistant Head Coach Chris Hood and Business Development Manager Keith Christie took the club steadily down the league, Hood quitting as coach at the end of the 2010 season, replaced by Richard Pell and - five months later - by long suffering Thunder veteran Kevin Neighbour.

After two years of struggle, Thunder again turned to Humberside for help: this time to partner club Hull KR who supplied Stanley Gene as coach along with an intake of decent junior talent. But no sooner had Stanley got his boots under is desk when the final ignominy was heaped on the shoulders of the Thunder faithful. Reward for 15 years of flying the RL flag in the North East came in the shape of being sold to Newcastle Falcons Rugby *nion club and shipped across the river to play on Kingston Park’s plastic pitch. The last straw for the Thunder Army?

Two fairly damning quotes from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s coverage of the Falcons’ takeover caught our eye. “Rebranded as ‘Newcastle Thunder’ having finally gone public on their intention to share the Falcons’ Kingston Park home, even die-hard Gateshead fans were virtually mute in their disapproval…” and: “… with Newcastle Falcons losing in excess of £3m in their last published accounts the true test comes if Thunder fail to climb the ladder, and simply become another vehicle for a rich man to lose money…”

In a chilling echo of promises past, Thunder MD Keith Christie still has big ambitions. He’s quoted as saying: “There is no doubt that Super League is the aim for us… I would love to say we would be there in three to five years, but there are 13 guys on the opposition team every week who will tell you otherwise”.

Indeed, whilst *nion club owner Semore Kurdi has chucked a bucket of cash at his new toy (Gene packing his side with NSW Cup/Intrust Cup/CRL/NRL Kumuls and journeymen antipodeans) Newcastle Thunderfalcons currently sit outside the five having scored the fewest points and conceded the most. Indeed, with only a +69 points difference, the stats suggest they tend to nick tight games (an average winning margin of 5 points). Last weekend, though, they lost a tight, low-scoring game 16-4 at Barrow - their only try coming in the last minute.

Certainly the loss of influential Kiwi half-back Jordan Meads who’s returning Australia due to a family issue - and most likely to play Intrust Cup there - will leave a big hole at the centre of things that might take some time to fill. Otherwise we think that the real trouble sits in the front row where ex-Cronulla Sharks prop Mark Mexico partners emerging Hull KR talent Sonny Esslemont with former NSW player of the season Dayne Craig slotting in at Hooker. Keep that front-row quiet and you’re in with a shot.

Elsewhere, with Swinton at Barrow and Oldham at York, it’s another weekend where a win of any shade sould have a huge impact - so let’s get up to Newcastle in numbers, make some noise and make a difference.