Memories of the first Prem match at Kingston Park
The following extract is from an article in the official match-day programme for next weekend’s game:
**NEWCASTLE FALCONS 37-12 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS**
**OCTOBER 8, 1997**
Things looked very different back at the start of the 1997-98 season. The Premiership, as National Division One had been renamed, was sponsored by Allied Dunbar, and the Falcons were newcomers having secured promotion by finishing runners-up in Division Two to Richmond.
Two years earlier, with the substantial investment from Sir John Hall, the Falcons had stolen a march on their rivals by assembling a playing squad littered with internationals from home and abroad. Promotion had not been plain sailing, as defeats at Bedford and Coventry left them placed second in Richmond’s wake.
By the start of the 1997-98 campaign several other clubs had caught up in terms of investment in their playing squads, and so the Falcons entered the season as outsiders.
The first fixture was at Bath who had dominated English club rugby in the decade before the game went open, and so the game was seen as a true test of the team’s potential. A late Stuart Legg try and Tim Stimpson’s conversion secured a 20-17 victory and set the Falcons up nicely for their first ever home fixture in the Premiership against Northampton Saints, another side littered with internationals and British and Irish Lions.
The match was scheduled for the August 31 but was postponed hours before kick-off due to the death of the Princess of Wales, and so we had to wait until Wednesday October 8 for the first home fixture. Even then there was a hitch as kick-off was delayed for 15 minutes, as referee Tony Spreadbury’s flight was delayed.
Any concerns that the victory at Bath would prove a false dawn were quickly extinguished as the Falcons dominated in outscoring the visitors by five tries to nil in front of 3,390 spectators, who included England coach Clive Woodward.
The Falcons got off to a flying start with Tim Stimpson kicking two penalties either side of a similar effort from Ali Hepher before Gary Armstrong seized a loose ball from an up-and-under to score in the corner, giving the Falcons a 13-3 lead with just ten minutes played. The remainder of the first half was nip and tuck as Hepher – a former Newcastle Gosforth player and now head coach at Exeter – added two further penalties, and Gregor Townsend a drop goal to narrow the gap to a point at 13-12.
With less than three minutes to go to half-time Jim Naylor scored the Falcons’ second try after Pat Lam had stolen Northampton lineout ball to take the score to 18-12 at the break. Naylor had been dropped by Woodward from the England squad and may have felt that he had something to prove as he scored his second try on 52 minutes, Stimpson’s conversion taking the score to 25-12.
The Saints enjoyed a brief period of ascendancy before a Lam try effectively killed the game off. There was still time for Nick Popplewell to score a fifth try for the Falcons, with Stimpson adding the conversion.
**The Falcons team that night was:** T.Stimpson; J.Naylor; V.Tuigamala; A.Tait; J.Bentley; R.Andrew, G.Armstrong; N.Popplewell; R.Nesdale; P.Van Zandvliet; G.Archer; D.Weir; P.Lam; R.Arnold; D.Ryan (Capt).
The victories over Bath and Northampton represented the start of a stellar run which saw the Falcons go unbeaten in the league until mid-March 1998 en-route to the Premiership title. Kingston Park proved something of a fortress, with all nine matches played there (along with two played at Gateshead Stadium) resulting in home wins.
[**Click here**] to book your tickets for Newcastle Falcons v Bath on Saturday November 5 (kick-off 3pm).