IF last year was the year when rugby union’s profile soared in Newcastle, the next 12 months promise to be a period when the sport scales even greater heights in the city. It might be a footballing hotbed, but Newcastle increasingly feels at home with a different-shaped ball.

The decision to host three World Cup matches at St James’ Park in 2015 was a masterstroke, introducing a generation of North-East sport fans to the thrills and spills of international rugby.

Newcastle Falcons have nurtured that interest, enticing more than 30,000 spectators to St James’ for March’s Premiership game with Northampton and gradually building attendances at Kingston Park thanks to a combination of innovative off-field initiatives and increasingly successful performances on the park.

Falcons finished fourth in last season’s Premiership, their highest placing since the glory days of Sir John Hall’s professional trailblazers in the mid-1990s. Their position in the top four secured automatic qualification for this year’s European Champions Cup, ratcheting the excitement levels up another notch or two ahead of this weekend’s season-opening home game with Saracens.

Can Falcons maintain their upward trajectory and challenge for Premiership honours this season? It would be quite something if they could because 2019 already promises to be another landmark year for North-East rugby. A successful Falcons side would make it even more special.

It is especially fitting that Falcons return to the Champions Cup this term as the competition’s final will take place at St James’ in May.

It will be the biggest club rugby match ever to be staged in the North-East, but could be upstaged a couple of months later when England visit the home of Newcastle United for a World Cup warm-up match against Italy. It will be the first England home game to be staged outside Twickenham for 21 years, and it says much that the Rugby Football Union have chosen to uproot to Tyneside rather than Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham. Clearly, the authorities see Newcastle as the sport’s new northern outpost.

Falcons deserve immense credit for spearheading that shift, but having taken some huge forward strides in the last couple of seasons, Dean Richards’ side face a major challenge to maintain their upward trajectory over the course of the next nine months. Finishing fourth last season was a considerable achievement; breaking into the top three would arguably be an even greater feat than winning the inaugural Premiership trophy under Rob Andrew in the 1990s.

Last year, Falcons were something of a surprise package. Their incisive attacking rugby put opponents on the back foot, particularly away from home, their pack was a much more potent asset than most had anticipated, and thanks to Richards’ astute recruitment they remained strong in the middle part of the season when so many of their rivals were ravaged by international drop-outs.

Most of those building blocks remain in place this term, with Falcons having held on to their most important assets. With Vereneki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti still key components of the starting line-up, the Falcons backline once again boasts invention and pace. Sonatane Takulua remains one of the most creative scrum-halves in the English game, while the likes of Sean Robinson, Mark Wilson and Gary Graham remain cornerstones of the pack. As was the case last season, it is hard to see Falcons being brushed aside by anyone, and that includes reigning champions Saracens, who provide the opposition tomorrow.

However, a few things have changed that could make Newcastle’s task much more difficult as they look to build on last season’s success to mount a viable title challenge.

First, the element of surprise has disappeared. No one regards Falcons as an easy touch any more, and whereas they were able to catch opponents cold at Kingston Park last term, teams will travel to Tyneside this season anticipating a tough test. Their threat out wide has been widely flagged up, and Goneva in particular will be a closely-marked man. It will be interesting to see how the Fijian adapts if teams adopt specific game plans aimed at blunting his try-scoring threat.

Newcastle have recruited this summer, but despite the continued financial support of their owner, Semore Kurdi, they do not have the resources of the vast majority of their Premiership rivals. George McGuigan’s return from Leicester Tigers will help shore up the front row – Logovi Mulipola has also left Welford Road to bolster the Falcons front three – and Nemani Nagusa and Tom Arscott look interesting additions from France.

As ever, though, Richards will have to polish the rough diamonds he has been able to sign. Other clubs have flashed the cash for the finished article, and having struggled last term, both Gloucester and Harlequins look like being much stronger this time around.

Newly-promoted Bristol Bears are clearly determined to do significantly more than make the numbers up, having signed Charles Piutau, John Afoa and Australian legend George Smith, and while Worcester might turn out to be the whipping boys, this is shaping up to be a season where even the top teams struggle to string together a sequence of wins.

Have some of last season’s mid-table teams overtaken Newcastle thanks to their recruitment? Time will tell, but in terms of their league ambitions, Falcons have the added handicap of having to marry their Premiership programme with the demands of the Champions Cup.

Last term, Richards used the European windows as an opportunity to rest his first-team players and turn to youth. He won’t be able to do that this time around, and while pool matches against Toulon, Montpellier and Edinburgh are an attractive proposition, they will vastly increase the workload of Newcastle’s senior performers. Keeping those key players fit will arguably be Richards’ biggest challenge.

Even so, there is a tangible air of excitement ahead of Sunday’s Kingston Park kick-off. “Last season has been parked completely,” said McGuigan. “Yeah, the lads did well, which is great, but this is a new season and a new team. We can’t live on what we did last season, so we’ve just parked it and made a real commitment to each other that we’re going to make it another memorable year in its own right.”

With the Champions Cup final and an England international to come, it will definitely be a memorable 12 months for North-East rugby. Hopefully, Falcons will continue to play a central role in the sport’s growth in the region.