WHEN professional rugby locked down in March, the game in the North-East was riding on the crest of a wave.

Newcastle Falcons, the region’s flagbearers at club level, were romping towards the Championship title and a return to the Gallagher Premiership. The feelgood factor engendered by the decision to host World Cup matches and the European Champions Cup final at St James’ Park was still evident. Community clubs right across the region were reporting record levels of interest, particularly in their junior ranks.

Eight months on, and the world, let alone the sporting landscape, feels very different. But when Falcons finally take to the field tomorrow, marking their return to the Premiership with a trip to Bath, their director of rugby, Dean Richards, is hoping the momentum that was apparent at the start of the year has not been lost. A lot of work has gone in to raising rugby’s profile in the footballing heartlands of the North-East – the hope is that coronavirus has not rendered it redundant.

“It’s a massive moment, said Richards, whose side were awarded the Championship title after last season was cut-off two thirds of the way through. “It’s blighted by the fact that we can’t have our supporters here – the impact of us being back in the Premiership is blunted slightly by the circumstances we find ourselves in. But having said that, for North-East rugby, it is still incredibly important that we are in the Premiership, and we stay here for as long as we can.

“Hopefully, we can keep the momentum going. Restarting is a big thing, and once the community clubs can start bringing people back into the stadium again, that’ll be another big step forward. Hopefully, there won’t be too much of a fall-off from where we’d got to before the pandemic struck – if any at all. It’s all about engagement with the supporters and the wider community. Hopefully, we’ll get that back on track as soon as we can.”

For the time being, Richards and his players will focus their efforts on trying to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.

The trends are against Falcons – the vast majority of teams promoted into the Premiership are relegated in the following season – and this year the top-flight’s newcomers are at even more of a disadvantage than usual.

Whereas Premiership clubs returned to the field to complete last season behind-closed-doors in the summer, teams outside the top-flight have been unable to play since March. Having furloughed a large number of their players and staff during the first lockdown, Falcons did not even begin training until well into the summer, and even then their plans had to be hastily redrawn after a coronavirus outbreak meant around 30 players had to self-isolate for a fortnight because they were counted as close contacts of those who had contracted the illness.

The odds are certainly stacked against Richards’ team as they head to the Rec tomorrow, but the Falcons boss is not looking for excuses as his side prepares for its top-flight return.

“It’s been a difficult time, but it’s in the past,” he said. “The guys are just excited about getting out onto the field this weekend. For all the hardship that we’ve had over the last eight or nine months, we’ve been able to put that behind us and we’re just excited to be getting going.

“I think people will probably have made us relegation favourites, but we don’t think we are. On paper, I think we’ve got a good squad, we just need to get them on the field. The build-up hasn’t been great in terms of the long lay-off to begin with and then a slightly fragmented pre-season.

“The whole thing has been a bit fragmented, but having said that, we’re in and training now, and although we’ve got a couple of injuries, once everyone is back I think we’ve got a really good squad. There’s no way we feel the label we are being given.”

Falcons have been rocked by the departure of winger Sinoti Sinoti for personal reasons in the build-up to this weekend’s kick-off, but England back rower Mark Wilson should return from injury in a couple of weeks’ time.

“Mark’s two or three weekends away,” said Richards. “But had he been available, he would have been away with England for the next few weekends anyway.”