Back-rower Philip van der Walt believes squad stability will stand Newcastle Falcons in good stead when they kick off the new Gallagher Premiership season on the weekend of November 20-22.
The South African back-rower was just beginning to hit full stride when the Covid-19 pandemic brought last season to a premature halt back in March, the 31-year-old starting their last two games before the campaign ended with the unbeaten Falcons 18 points ahead of their nearest rivals.
Now looking forward to his first crack at England’s top flight, the former Sharks, Biarritz and Canon Eagles forward says the building blocks are in place for the Premiership’s most northerly outfit to prosper.
Q: It’s been a mad first year in England for you in many ways, Philip. How do you look back on the whole thing?
Philip van der Walt: I think ‘mad’ is probably the right word, for sure. It’s certainly been very eventful from a personal perspective, with arriving injured and not being able to play for quite a while. Putting the obvious negative aspect of it to one side, it was actually useful to have the time to get a proper feel for the place, and we managed to move around the North East quite a bit as a family. It’s a wonderful area, and we’re lucky to have seen quite a bit of it.
I’m obviously stoked that the Falcons managed to finish the season well, going unbeaten until the league was ended due to Covid, and it’s set us up well to be able to progress into the Premiership next year. There’s definitely a lot to look forward to, and from a personal point of view I’m just keen to get back out on the park with the boys.
Q: The last two games before lockdown were a 41-0 win over Bedford and a memorable 38-3 away victory over Jersey, how gutting was it to have the season ended when you were in such good form?
PvdW: For me personally those games were great because I’d just come back to fitness and earned selection in the team, and we thought we still had a load of matches to look forward to. We wanted to finish the season and go through the whole thing unbeaten, but obviously there’s a bigger picture in terms of Covid and the whole safety aspect, so you’ve just got to go with the decision.
Q: What was your situation once lockdown came in? Did you stay local or head home to South Africa?
PvdW: We stayed in Newcastle throughout the entire period. To begin with we didn’t know what was happening with the Falcons’ season, so we stuck around until that was resolved, and although we did want to go back to South Africa it really became a practical decision, because we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get back out to the UK. I was just worried we’d end up getting stuck there, but once the lockdown eased up a bit we were able to get out and explore the North East as a region. We’ve had family trips to places like Whitby and Alnwick, to pick out just a couple, and it’s such a beautiful area we live in. I think like most people our routine was pretty one-dimensional and repetitive for a lot of the spring and summer, but you’ve just got to understand and appreciate the important things in all of it.
Q: How good was it to get back into training with the Falcons, and have some degree of normality restored?
PvdW: It was a big relief for all of us, to be honest, because as rugby players you just want to see the lads and throw the ball around. To be able to do something we consider to be ‘normal’ felt like a bit of a blessing, and just seeing the boys again in person has been great. It was a reminder of the privilege of being able to play rugby for a living, because this past year has shown us that it can all be taken away so quickly. I’m not getting any younger, so if anything it’s just been a reminder that you need to enjoy it while you still have it.
Q: The other Gallagher Premiership teams are playing games thick and fast at the moment while we’re sat at home watching them on TV. How do you guys feel about that, and will such a long off-season be help or hindrance when the 2020/21 season eventually starts in late November?
PvdW: I’ve caught some of the highlights, and I guess there are two ways of looking at it. You can draw positives from playing a lot, and also from having a lot of rest. From our point of view I think it enables us to prepare well for the transition from Championship to Premiership, and to get a good look at everyone we’re going to be playing against. On the whole I think it’s a good thing, and for the teams playing at the moment they’re going to getting their depth massively tested.
I feel like we’re in a good space in terms of being able to prepare, having a couple of sharpeners and then just diving straight into it. The other teams have the advantage of having played at that level just a few weeks earlier, whereas we have the benefit of fresh legs, but we have a good squad at the Falcons and will be doing plenty during the coming couple of months to mitigate the fact we’re not playing matches at the moment.
Q: You’ve played in France, Japan and South Africa’s top divisions, but this season will be your first crack at the Gallagher Premiership. Does that excite you as a player, and what are you expecting?
PvdW: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. I know the standard will be high, and defence seems to be more of a priority than perhaps I’ve been used to with Super Rugby. I’m really excited about the challenge of being able to contribute for the team, and I love being in the midst of those challenges. When you look around the league there are so many top international names here, and it’s great to weigh yourselves up against that level of quality.
Q: It’s been a pretty stable summer for the Falcons squad in terms of comings and goings – how do you see things shaping up, and could we surprise a few people?
PvdW: We’ve got a really competitive squad, and when you look at my own position in the back-row it’s unbelievable how much talent we’ve got there. If we alternated the back-row every single game I don’t think the standard would drop from week to week, but as a whole I think we have a strong group and I’m looking forward to seeing how we go.
We showed last season that when we get it right we can be really good, and that will give us a lot of confidence. We know the level of opposition will be much higher, but that just puts more emphasis on being absolutely on top of your skills and your mental focus. There were times last season where we squandered opportunities and really had to grind out results, which you won’t necessarily get away with in the Premiership. I definitely feel we have the players, though, and the few changes which have been made will only strengthen us.
That continuity is a big asset of ours, and we really know what we’re about as a team. We’ve been building this for a year now – probably longer, in some respects – and for me that’s more important than going out and signing a boat-load of names.