Newcastle Falcons continue their search for their first win of the Gallagher Premiership this weekend, and make the trip to Welford Road for a Sunday afternoon clash with Leicester Tigers. Head Coach Alex Codling recognises that his side are the underdogs, but is excited to see their fight against one of the Premiership’s top squads.
As Leicester boast a team of international talents and Rugby World Cup winners, the Tigers enter this match as considerable favourites. However, the matches are never won on paper, with the Falcons looking for a shock victory to upset the 2022 Premiership Champions. Codling recognised the talent that Leicester have within their ranks, yet believes that there is no better way for his young players to improve, than to take on the world’s best.
20-year-old Louis Johnson has already generated quite the buzz in his short stint at Newcastle, and Codling is excited to see how the fly-half fares this weekend. Johnson is set to go tee-to-tee with the Springboks’ Handre Pollard, and Codling was delighted to see Johnson step-up to start at 10 against Exeter Chiefs. The Falcons Head Coach was impressed by Johnson’s confidence, in how he led the line and slotted two conversions last Sunday.
“That’s ultimately when you learn your best.” Codling said. “I think when when you’re young man watching television, you watch the likes of (Handre) Pollard and (Jasper) Weise win the World Cup, and to then be on the same pitch as them, it’s inspiring.
“It also challenges you in lots of different ways. As I said, we help them off the field in terms of preparation, also the senior players can help them. But I think it’s brilliant, I thought Louis for his debut at 10, he’s obviously not playing a huge amount in the last couple of years. So it is really challenging, you to come into an environment like that, on a TV game, like he did last week and again this week. Well, I think it’s fantastic.
“I think is a huge positive. If he makes mistakes, he’s the type of young man that will learn from them. Have a look at them and reflect and that’s when you can also for from a young player, but I thought he did some really good moments.”
“Would you rather play, when no one is watching you know, with no focus on the game and against guys who are a similar age, would you rather test yourself against the best. They have a World Cup winners, World Cup semi finalists, finalists, on the pitch.”
“In front of the best ground to play at in English rugby, in my opinion. They’ll be over 20,000 and it’s on the television. So for me, lots of positives. I just want us to attack the game. We know what’s coming. We’re massive underdogs but that’s fine. That is what it is. We know the challenge, and like I said we’ll attack, and what we’ve done every week this year, and the only time we haven’t was Saracens, and with the greatest respect to Saracens that’s no disgrace, we saw what they did to Harlequins the following week.”
The Newcastle Falcons squad is hoping to bolster their own international talents, that are currently found within their notable Argentinian contingent. However, aside from the four Falcons that have donned Kingston Park ‘Argen-toona’, a quartet of Newcastle talents are also on the books of England Head Coach Steve Borthwick. Codling confirmed that Borthwick is looking at four of his players, but did not give away the exact names on his list.
One Falcons star who has recently been involved in the England set-up is Jamie Blamire, as the hooker was included in Borthwick’s wider training group ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Blamire earned a test cap over the Summer, but was later returned to the North East after England’s opening series defeat to Wales. It’s no secret that Blamire is on Borthwick’s radar, as the 25-year-old continues to push from strength to strength with Newcastle.
“I think the massive strength for Jamie is, he’s incredibly versatile and mobile.” Codling said. “Over the ball, he is phenomenal. You saw it, and that’s probably the best game I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here. I thought he’s (got a) dynamic ball carry, set-piece was good. Yeah the line-out didn’t function at times, but that wasn’t down to him. It was just other people going off script
“So, he’s got a huge amount of attributes. He’s a key part of our team, of our group. He also has a really strong connection with the club. So he knows his work-ons (for England), there not for me to put in the public domain. But all I know is, he’s a very valuable member of our team. I know he showed up really well in front of Steve Borthwick on Sunday.”
Blamire certainly knows his way to the try-line, and has already scored four tries in all competitions this season. The front-rower’s latest score was the pick of the bunch, as he ran in an outstanding solo effort, with his line-break beginning on Exeter’s 10m line last weekend. Codling backed Blamire’s show-stealing abilities, and likened his versatile talents to another hooker in the England set-up.
“That’s what he can do. The game is becoming more hybrid now, in terms of that second row/back row, ability to be flexible. So the days of my traditional lock, of me being 50 years of age, just that tight-head lock, who scrums, line-outs and cleans rucks, and does kickoffs, is still a key part of the game. But you’ll see a lot of players now transitioning between back-row and hooker when they’re younger, but also in games, in season, around between second row and back-row, because they’re so versatile, the game is so dynamic.
“So these players like Jamie are invaluable, because he’s good over the ball defensively. He’s tough, he’s also very explosive, and also strong around his set piece. So different coaches look for different traits. But also his flexibility, like Theo Dan, as well, he’s a similar player has played back-row in the early part of his career. It just gives the team an extra dynamic.”
There has in no doubt been an era of great change at Kingston Park, with 16 new arrivals coming in over the Summer. Despite the influx of fresh faces, Newcastle are lacking in squad depth, as a total of 23 players left the club at the end of the 2022/23 season. Codling’s newest arrivals are the former Jersey Reds duo of James Elliot and John Hawkins, who return to the North East for their second stint with the club after the Channel Island side entered financial administration last month.
Codling has been very impressed by scrum-half Elliot and lock John Hawkins, in how they’ve adapted to the on-field step up from Championship to Premiership rugby. However, as importantly in Codling’s view, is that the two ex-Jersey players bring a solid culture to the club, and have integrated well into the Falcons’ way of life.
“I think, two things it shows, one is the championship, that players can adapt and come into a new environment. So, that’s a real positive for the league in that one sense, but also they’re good people. They’re both here and we often speak about ‘what’s your why’ (for being here). They’ve got a really clear and identifiable ‘why’, that’s really deep in them.
“So ultimately, when they’ve got the chance they’ve taken it, they both come in from the outside. They both didn’t really know anyone here. I know, Jamie knew a couple of people from previously, but this is a new group. And they’ve got themselves in the team pretty quickly. So that tells you about, A; the qualities they have as players, but also (B) their qualities as a person. And they’re the things you look for as a coach. I think they’ve made massive, massive strides in the team, and they’ve been really valuable members the last few weeks.”
In a progressive move to highlight the importance of mental health, Newcastle Falcons are partnering with Restart Rugby for this weekend’s ‘Restart Round’. Codling spoke very openly about how everyone needs to look after their mental health, and how rugby players and coaches are no different.
“I think everyone has to go through tough periods in their life, and I’m no different. Sometimes you’ve only realize what you need when you need it. I think it’s a bit like a car, it runs normally and everything’s fine. And suddenly, when it breaks down, you don’t realise how serious, or what a big change it has in your life, and your mental health is the same thing.
“One thing we don’t do well enough a society is look after our mental health, we try and be fit, and we try and eat healthily, but actually, your mind and how you feel is, is not only important to you, but how you come across the impact you can have on others.”
“I think that’s why we have to stick together as a coaching group and look after each other. I think never, ever underestimate the support that is out there, and the ‘Restart’ program is amazing. But also the impact that people can have in the environment that you work in. Just that arm on the shoulder that quiet word, just people can recognise they’re not in their own fighting battles on their own, and life is very different than when I was younger.”