Gloucester Rugby column by ex-England star Alastair Hignell

NO TIME for sentiment.

If Gloucester beat Newcastle at Kingsholm on Saturday they will almost certainly send the Falcons down into the Championship. With Leeds currently wallowing in the lower reaches of that competition, the whole of the north-east of England would become a rugby wasteland.

But, in the dog-eat-dog world that is professional rugby folk at Kingsholm can’t afford to care what’s happening at the other end of the country.

Newcastle’s almost certain demise will mark the end of a significant chapter in the sport’s history. They were the key movers in the lurch towards professionalism in England that followed the momentous decision by the game’s governing body, the IRB, at their Annual General Meeting in August 1995 that players could officially be rewarded for their efforts. To say that the RFU was taken by surprise is an understatement. They had mandated their representatives at the Paris meeting to vote against the proposal.

To say that they did not know what to do next is only slightly less of an understatement. But, having just committed to the multi-million pound reconstruction of the West Stand at Twickenham, the RFU felt that, even if their cumbersome administrative system could cope with the new status quo, they didn’t have the resources to ‘buy up “ all the leading players in the manner of their counterparts in New Zealand and Australia.

Their solution – to propose a moratorium on the move towards professionalism while they got their house in order – lasted no time at all. Sir John Hall, a combative multi-millionaire from the North-East with an ambition to turn Newcastle into a multi-sport centre of excellence – rather in the manner that the Benetton family had done at Treviso in Italy – had little acquaintance with the concept of patience. He wanted a professional rugby team in Newcastle, and he wanted it immediately.

While everyone else was waiting to see what would happen , Sir John signed Rob Andrew as a player/ director of rugby and prolific try-scorer Tony Underwood as his marquee signing. He also snapped up the likes of Dean Ryan and Steve Bates from Wasps, and Alan Tait from rugby league.

Together with a young fresh-faced teenager called Jonny Wilkinson they turned the new kids on the block – all associations with former regional powerhouses Gosforth airbrushed swiftly from their identity – into the champions of England.

While Sir John’s money helped to establish a rugby dynasty at Newcastle – producing England players like Jamie Noon, Matthew Tait and, more recently Toby Flood – his manner helped to make the almost inevitable showdown between clubs and country a bit more acerbic than was strictly necessary.

His hard-ball approach to negotiations, his willingness to take the game to the brink of meltdown in pursuit of what he deemed the necessary financial recognition of the clubs’ contribution to the newly professional sport may not have gone down too well in the corridors of power but it was manna from heaven for journalists like myself.

And Sir John’s legacy should not be forgotten. His belligerence ensured the establishment of professional club rugby as a whole and his generosity established Newcastle as one of its leading lights.

They’ll come again – probably. In the meantime, Gloucester – with their own sights on a top six finish – have a job to do.......

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