1st September 2018
It is a quiet corner of Kingston Park – home to the region’s leading rugby club that rattled more than a few cages on its way to a fourth-place finish in the Aviva Premiership and two further semi-final appearances in the European Challenge Cup and the Anglo-Welsh Cup last season.
As his players and coaching staff bustle and buzz in the room next door, it seems the ideal time to ponder the highlights of the club’s highest top-flight finish for 20 years and their captivating cup runs. Dean Richards, however, has left that task to others.
Since the campaign ended in May at the hands of eventual league champions Exeter Chiefs, plaudits have poured in, yet Richards’ long-term vision has left little room for eulogising.
“There is a time for reflection,” admits the 55-year-old, who represented England and the British and Irish Lions as an esteemed number eight before making the switch to coaching in 1998, “but mostly I look forward and try to learn from each experience. We did well in the 2017/18 season but we didn’t win anything, and I found that frustrating.
“Although everybody was saying ‘what a great season’, we were a little bit upset that we didn’t win anything and this time around we’ll try to change that.
“We know how close we were to picking up some silverware, and we’re talking about very fine margins. Had we done things in certain ways on certain days then things might have been different, but it wasn’t to be.
We’ll learn from the mistakes we made rather than dwell too much on any euphoria or, likewise, get too down about getting knocked out of two semi-finals. What we’ve learned must be taken into the new season, and it’s all about gearing ourselves up to winning something. Ultimately, that is our goal.
Upon joining the club in 2012, Richards’ task was a simple one. Following relegation to England’s second tier, the powers that be at Kingston Park demanded an instant return to the Premiership, and a subsequent league record of played 22, won 21 during his first season in charge tells its own story.
After their initial mission was accomplished, the club set out a five-year plan that included designs on the Premiership’s top six and, ultimately, the top four.
Is it a case of so far so good for Richards and co? “We manged that last season,” he says, “and once you’re at that level, anything can happen.
“European qualification every year, which a top six finish brings, is now our goal, but we’re aware that the top four teams change regularly, so to guarantee being up there year in, year out is very difficult.
“The league’s big spenders obviously give themselves a better chance and can effectively go out and buy that certainty, but unlike other sports, there seems to be room for manoeuvre in the top four.
“Our goal was to be one of those sides each year, and we achieved that last season, so in that respect you could say we’re pretty much on course.”
Such high ideals might have sounded idealistic at best back in 2012, and had a newly-promoted football team made such bold plans public after transitioning from the Championship to the Premier League, they’d have been labelled fantasists.
But Richards had more than just on-the-field affairs in mind.
His was a vision of a change in philosophy from top to bottom – and he freely admits that implementing such a substantial remodelling job was never going to be easy.
“In the beginning it was difficult for some people to understand how things would evolve,” says Nuneaton-born Dean, who played for Leicester Tigers over a 14-year spell before leading them to Premiership and Heineken Cup success as coach.
“The idea was always built around getting the culture right and the style of rugby right.
“Our goals also had to be cost-effective, and just like in any other sport, that can be pretty difficult. What’s pleasing to me is that last year we had Bobby Vickers’ testimonial, and there are more like him that aren’t just hanging around for two or three seasons, but for ten years or more.
“Alex Tait is another classic example of that. People want to stay here, and we’re now finding that people want to come here as well, so the culture change has been quite significant.
“When you couple that with our style of play, we’re starting to get to where we want to be. Those changes weren’t always evident, but bit by bit things have started to happen.
“They are changes I want to see in place here for a long time, and when I eventually leave the Falcons, or the coaches that work with me leave, we want that culture to remain as the club moves forward.
“In terms of my own career, I take pleasure from lots of different things. I was delighted when Mark Wilson won his first England cap in Argentina last year and equally delighted when Gary Graham got called up by England for the Six Nations.
“Our budget is such that we can’t go out and buy success, so we often find ourselves in the hands of the gods in terms of what happens. That’s perhaps why we derive slightly different forms of satisfaction compared to others.
“But it always boils down to the fact that I love the game, I love winning, and the more you win the more you enjoy it.”
The sense of continuity instilled by Dean was underscored when he put pen-to-paper on a new three-year contract this summer – a commitment he says he “didn’t have to think twice about”.
There is a stability within the club, specifically in the rugby department, with vision and ambition becoming buzz words among coaches and players alike.
Recruitment has been key, and Dean’s aforementioned satisfaction with less obvious developments is underlined by the mood within his squad.
“We feel like we now have a group of players who get on very well together and share an ambition to try and achieve something,” he says.
“You get a sense that we are getting something right at the club that will be there for a very long time.
“The personnel has changed significantly compared to when we started out, but we retained the people we really wanted to keep. People now appreciate how we’re playing and liking it to the point that they genuinely want to be part of that style.”
Alongside the action, chairman Semore Kurdi’s vision for the club is also beginning to emerge in more tangible forms.
Redevelopment of the stadium’s North Stand is underway, while back in March the Falcons played in front of more than 30,000 in a one-off game at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park – complete with Vereniki Goneva’s ‘Shearer’ salute after he crossed the try line.
Rugby in the North East is far stronger than people perceive it to be, says Dean, and he’s convinced the public’s appetite will continue to match the Falcons’ growth.
“The day at St. James’ Park was one of the highlights of my career,” he says. “Everything fell into place.
“That and the redevelopment is part of the ambition at the club, and it won’t stop there. That’s a big part of the reason I want to stick around, because not only does Semore have the vision off-the-field, he has a vision to be competitive on it as well.
“When I arrived, I don’t think there was a fantastic relationship between local clubs and the Falcons, but that relationship has grown massively over the last six years.
“A large part of that has to be down to our community department, who have worked tirelessly to make that growth happen. I’m very fortunate in so much that I have four kids who all play in the region, and I get around a lot of the clubs to watch them play on a regular basis.
“People hold the view that this is purely a soccer-mad region, but in my experience, it is rugby-mad as well. As far as I can see it is thriving, and that’s all to do with how well our community team are generating interest and forging links, both with ourselves and the game in general.
Ultimately, if we don’t perform well on the field then people won’t want to come and watch us play. It’s no coincidence that the more games we win, the more people turn up. They go hand-in-hand.
“Progression and improvement is the whole idea, and we understand exactly where we are.”
With a slightly smaller squad going into the 2018/19 season, Dean’s aims remain resolute – to retain a core group of players and compete at the top of the table with a view to winning something.
But what of his own career?
Writing for The Telegraph back in April this year, former international Austin Healey named Dean as his top choice for the England job. Is that something that would appeal to him once his current contract is up?
“I have absolutely no interest in doing this at international level,” he says, “but that doesn’t dampen my desire to win.
“We want our legacy to be long-lasting, and that’s very much what we’re focussed on. I very much enjoy what I’m doing at Newcastle and what’s important is that things are being done properly.
“We know we still have a lot of room for improvement, both on-the-field and off it, and while we’ll always strive for perfection, we’ll do it in the right way.
“You’ll always get coaches who chase trophies and only work for clubs that offer them the best opportunity to pick up silverware and consequently see their name in lights.
“Those kind of coaches only work for the best clubs who are able to spend a huge amount of money and buy in success, because ultimately it’ll look great on their CV.
For me, that’s too easy, and I’ve never been interested in doing that. Getting the culture right at the club is really important to me, and the way we’ve done things at the Falcons feels like the proper way to do it.