British & Irish Cup draw

I’ve always said that being relegated would be a great adventure.

 

The great thing about being in the Championship is the opportunity to visit new places many of us have never been. Well OK, a lot of us will have been to see the Falcons play at Bristol and Leeds before, but how many of you have ever been to Bedford or Penzance?

 

On top of the league comes the British & Irish Cup, the draw and fixtures for which were published yesterday. The Falcons have been drawn against Newport, Cross Keys and Connacht, all clubs we have crossed paths with in the past.

 

We have been lucky to get three non-English teams and all of these look like good away days. I can’t deny I’m a little disappointed we didn’t get Cornish Pirates, since I’m likely missing the league game there in September. Have to wait for the play-offs I guess!

 

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A Geordie likes his beer, but nowhere do they enjoy a good friendly drink more than in Ireland and one of the most popular European trips we have had in recent years was to Connacht in December 2007. I wasn’t there but had I been I would have joined those fans who stripped to their underwear in front of Galway’s Christmas tree post-match.

 

Tales from that weekend make the fact that we lost 16-13 seem almost meaningless. Not perhaps for coach Steve Black, who left the club within days.

 

Just over a week later the Falcons had revenge, home debutant Carl Hayman helping John Fletcher’s side to a 39-0 win.

 

Although we will be playing Connacht’s reserves this time, and may well send out a weakened side ourselves in October, this is likely to be a popular trip.

 

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Our two meetings with Cross Keys in the then-European Shield in 2000/01 were each memorable for their own reasons. The game at KP saw us get as close to 100 points as is possible without attaining that, winning 99-8 with 15 tries. Every starting back was on the scoresheet including Liam Botham, who bagged a hat-trick.

 

The return in Wales in January 2001 is one of those matches I wish I had been at. It hoyed down and Cross Keys’ Pandy Park pitch was unplayable, so calls were made a pitch found at the nearby Waunfawr Park.

 

Spectators hugged the perimeter of the pitch to watch the likes of Va’aiga Tuigamala, Gary Armstrong, Doddie Weir and Marius Hurter playing on a public park, a throwback to the good old days. The Falcons secured a quarter-final place with a professional 11-25 win.

 

Cross Keys is definitely one away trip I will be closely looking at this season. Not only is there extra spice since they were the beaten finalists in this competition last season, the rural area means there should be no problem persuading Wor Lass to come too if I can promise a day of hiking alongside the rugby.

 

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The Falcons have an interesting history with Newport. The Newport club were our first opponents in the Heineken Cup back in 2001 and the strong Welsh side won 21-34 at KP, a brutal introduction to the big time for our team.

 

The return match at Rodney Parade at the end of the pool stage was a bit of a farce from a Geordie point of view. It came just three days after our rearranged home meeting with Leinster at Headingley, and with nothing to play for (hope of qualification had long died) we were trounced 53-17.

 

After the revamp of professional rugby in Wales, our next participation in the Heineken Cup saw us paired with the Newport Gwent Dragons, starting the campaign in the Principality.

 

It rained. It kept raining. And then it rained some more. But the Falcons forwards never took a step backwards from their hosts, and Dave Walder played one of his best games in a Newcastle shirt. Approaching half-time, in the corner in front of the seated fans, Mike McCarthy charged down a kick and scored the game’s only try.

 

Few Falcons fans who saw it will ever forget it. I myself began dancing with the bloke two seats away, possibly crushing my then-girlfriend sat between us. Well, she never liked rugby anyway.

 

That 6-10 victory was the start of our assault on the Heineken Cup that led to a final-day showdown with the Dragons at KP for qualification.

 

The Falcons struggled to even name a team two days before the game, and the announcement had James Grindal at fly-half with Ed Kalman making a debut in the front row.

 

As it was, Rob Andrew was able to name a stronger side and in front of over 7,000, plus the watching Sky audience, tries by Matthew Burke, Tom May and Colin Charvis secured us a quarter-final in Paris. Mark Wilkinson surprised possibly even himself with an excellent game at fly-half!

 

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So that is what we have to look forward to in cup combat this season. The fixtures appear to be (on the weekend of):

 

13/10/2012 Cross Keys (H)

20/10/2012 Connacht A (A)

08/12/2012 Newport (H)

15/12/2012 Newport (A)

12/01/2013 Connacht A (H)

19/01/2013 Cross Keys (A)

 

This is going to be one great season!

 

 

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

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