Newcastle have been transformed from the unloved Northern outpost of Premiership rugby to Eddie Jones’s new favourite team with four players in the England squad – matching reigning champions Harlequins and eclipsing Bristol and Sale.
This has been achieved by Dean Richards’ s men despite flanker Mark Wilson, previously their only England representative, being out injured. With Jones making two visits to Kingston Park in recent months, Callum Chick, Trevor Davison, Jamie Blamire and Adam Radwan will be training with the national squad in Jersey next week.
The team spirit that has helped Falcons overcome their former status is the reason why No8 Carl Fearns will be sporting a full body spray tan in one of their matches this season. Fearns , whose ball carrying has helped Falcons move up to sixth place going into Saturday’s trip to Gloucester, was unlucky to suffer this forfeit for a breach of conduct rules that he “cannot remember” and had to spin the wheel of fortune which landed on the fake tan.
Other players have got off more lightly with having to produce a tray bake for the squad or arriving and leaving training dressed in a business suit also listed on the wheel along with a forfeit that has been put on hold while the COVID-19 pandemic remains a significant problem. It involves the unlucky player having to “lick Fearnsy’s head”. Full back Tom Penny is at the heart of the forfeits that have, inevitably, led to accusations of foul play, although Fearns has yet to catch anyone in the act.
So how does the forfeit system work for the Falcons players? “There is one forfeit that involves my head but in the current climate I don’t think it is the best thing to do. I had to spin it and there is a spray tan segment that I unfortunately landed on and so there may be a game this season where I turn up looking like I have been on holiday for a few weeks. Tom Penny is in charge as the Sherriff and it is on his shoulders when it happens but I am not reminding them about it. There is one called Mr Businessman where you have to turn up in a suit at the club, also wear it between sessions and when you leave.
“There is a lot of sabotage going on at the moment like taking someone’s car keys and parking their car in a disabled bay and then taking a photograph and claiming it was disgraceful and the car owner had to spin. There are a lot of players getting set up.”
Fearns, 32, who enjoyed a highly successful period in France helping Lyon gain promotion to the Top14 before heading to the North East, accepts he has to undergo the tanning which will be obvious to everyone thanks to that bald head. Having returned to the Premiership in April, Fearns was immediately struck by the team spirit at Falcons and said: “One of the first things I noticed here was the camaraderie and there are no egos in the group – just lads who want to graft for each other.
“That is why we can, if we want to, do something in the Premiership. Just look at our scramble defence and the way guys work hard to get back and those are foundations that allow you to do things. We almost thrive on the weather here in the North and when teams come to Kingston Park and see it blowing a gale and horizontal rain we have almost won the battle.”
The former England Saxons No8, who has also played for Sale and Bath, is a key ball carrier for Newcastle who have one of the strongest back row contingents in the Premiership and the competition is driving him to try and regain ground lost when he underwent a second ACL knee reconstruction while at Lyon.
He explained: “I have been having to manage my knee throughout my career because the first one happened when I was young and every club I have been to, I have had my work load managed. The ACL at Lyon was on the same leg and I have also had a micro fracture on the right knee and so I should be running in circles! I have not got much lateral meniscus in that knee and so in order to effectively replace the cartilage they drill holes into your bone which then calcifies and that acts as the cartilage.
“I knew I wanted to come back to England and carry on playing and prove the level I was at. Lyon offered me a one year deal to stay and I told them “no” and then COVID arrived and English clubs couldn’t be seen to be giving out contracts when they didn’t know financially where they would be. I couldn’t come back so signed for Rouen in ProD2 while my family went back to England which meant eight months on my own in France.
“In ProD2 it works on the basis of three games on and one game off and in my head I could do the block of games and then see my family but COVID didn’t allow that and so I was stuck in France. The back row options here at Newcastle are right up there with the best I have played with in my career and whoever gets put in it is good place to be with so many players pushing hard.
“Motivation is something I have been good at and I have used those injuries to strive to get back and in France I was mixing it with the best No8’s in the world and in my opinion I was playing as well as them. I then had my injury and it is tough getting back to that level and in my head that is what I have trying to achieve. I might not get there but I will give it a crack. We now have four players in the England squad and these are young players the Falcons can build a team around and it’s brilliant. “