Newcastle Falcons' Boxing Day game this year has sadly been cancelled, but Kingsley Hyland looks back at some festive fixtures which did get the go-ahead throughout the club's proud history.
RUGBY AT CHRISTMAS
The physical demands on the modern-day professional rugby player dictate that clubs play a maximum of one fixture in the week straddling Christmas. No matches can be played on Christmas Day, whilst Boxing Day only sees fixtures if it happens to fall on a weekend.
The last time that the Falcons played on Boxing Day was in 2015 when the fixture schedulers had them travelling to today’s visitors Leicester, in a game which saw the Tigers win 22-10.
It was a very different story in the old amateur days.
The Christmas holiday period was when the club treasurers were rubbing their hands at the prospect of large crowds anxious to get out of the house, but keen to prolong the festivities in the bar at their local rugby club.
A case in point is 1970. Gosforth traditionally played Northern on Boxing Day and Novocastrians on New Year’s Day. That year Christmas Day fell on a Friday.
The previous Saturday the team had travelled to play Nottingham, and despite missing Roger Uttley, a student working delivering Christmas post for the GPO, they won 14-3.
The Gosforth and Northern grounds in those days were separated by the width of the Great North Road, and fixtures were played across all of each club’s teams, from first team down to Colts.
Gosforth were by this time well established as the premier team in Northumberland and were building a reputation nationally, but were not yet the major force they were to become later in the decade.
Although they had established something of a dominance over Northern, on this occasion they succumbed 8-12 to their hosts at McCracken Park.
The Greyhounds fared better, beating Northern Wanderers 6-0. Below that, however, Northern managed a clean sweep, with their Seconds winning 17-11, Thirds 8-3, Vets (Gypsies) 6-0 and Colts 8-5.
As amateurs the players were not expected to throttle back on the Christmas festivities which may have affected their performance levels, but they were given little respite. Two days later they made the short journey to Morpeth. On this occasion they came out on the right side of a 12-8 scoreline.
It was Gosforth’s turn to host Novos on New Year’s Day after another long night of seasonal celebrations. After seeing off the visitors 9-3 the team were on the road again next day, the A69 this time, to Hexham, which is where Tynedale were then based. The team’s fourth game in just eight days brought the second defeat of the holiday period, Tynedale coming out on top 11-9.
Several of the players played in all four of those games, but pride of place must surely go to Alan Black, professional Geordie and all-round top rugby man.
He had been a playing stalwart at Gosforth for many years before work took him south, where he joined Wasps. Spending the holiday period back in the North East, he played for Gosforth on Boxing Day before driving down to London to captain Wasps on the 27th December. That match was a casualty of the winter weather, but he drove back up to play for Gosforth at Morpeth and in the New Year’s Day fixture with Novos.
The last of the traditional Boxing Day ‘derbies’ with Northern was played in 1994. On this occasion Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, and so the Newcastle Gosforth team were expected to play on both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.
In a season in which they experienced mixed fortunes following relegation from Division 1 they proved too strong for local opposition, beating Middlesbrough 39-11 at Acklam Park before thrashing Northern 62-0 at Kingston Park two days later. To round off a good week Alnwick were beaten 33-0 on New Year’s Eve.
The last Northern fixture should have taken place in 1995, by which time Newcastle Gosforth had become Newcastle RFC, and Rob Andrew was running the show. Having seen his new charges defeat Moseley 26-5 in the Pilkington Cup on 23rd December Andrew picked an experimental and largely youthful side to face Northern on Boxing Day, but a frozen pitch put paid to that.
Adverse weather has been another common factor in Yuletide fixtures, 2005 being a case in point.
The Falcons were not having a great season, and sat 9th in the Premiership with three wins and a draw from the opening ten games. Their opponents on 27th December, Leeds Tykes, sat bottom, but the sides had slugged out an 18-18 draw in a cup match a month earlier.
The team and several thousand supporters travelled through wintry conditions to reach Headingley, where they found a pitch containing more sand than grass. In front of a then Leeds record crowd of 11,601 the hosts had the better of the early exchanges before the Falcons opened the scoring with a length-of-the-field try in the 15th minute. Hooker Andy Long made the initial break from his own 22 before releasing to lock Stuart Grimes, who put Mathew Tait away.
Tait was hauled down just short of the line by Tom Palmer. Skipper Colin Charvis secured the ball and fed Micky Ward, who worked it right to Toby Flood, whose perfectly-executed grubber kick allowed Tait to touch down in the corner. Matt Burke converted from wide out for 7-0.
Gordon Ross and Burke exchanged penalties before an Andre Snyman try, converted by Ross, brought the teams level.
A 50-metre penalty from Burke on 37 minutes edged the visitors back ahead at half-time, and that proved to be the end of the scoring. The Tykes thought that they had won it at the death when centre Chris Bell went over, only to be called back by referee Chris White for a forward pass.
The Falcons’ team that day was: M.Burke; J.Shaw; J.Noon; M.Mayerhofler; M.Tait; T.Flood (rep. D.Walder 40); J.Grindal; M.Ward (rep.J.Williams 50); A.Long (rep. M.Thompson 52); R.Morris; A.Perry; S.Grimes; O.Finegan (rep. M.McCarthy 40); C.Harris; C.Charvis (captain)
Despite their struggles there were some interesting names on the Tykes team sheet. Scrum-half Justin Marshall was a former All Black, and his half-back partner Gordon Ross had played for Scotland. Lock Tom Palmer went on to play for England after joining Wasps, whilst his second row partner Stuart Hooper is the current director of rugby at Bath. Their bench included former Falcon Jon Dunbar, future Falcon Rob Vickerman and an 18-year-old Danny Care.