The biggest cheers of Saturday night’s game against Gloucester arrived when replacement prop Phil Brantingham came on for his debut, with the life-long Newcastle Falcons fan admitting it was the fulfilment of a boyhood dream.
The Fenham native has progressed through the Falcons' academy ranks from under-15s all the way through to first-team level, playing his junior rugby with Morpeth RFC and RGS Newcastle, as well as rugby league with Cramlington Rockets and Newcastle Thunder.
Progressing through the England Under-20s system and helping them to win last year’s age-group Six Nations title, his Premiership debut for the Falcons might have been short, but it was none the less sweet.
“It was only a few minutes at the end of the game, but for me that was a dream come true,” said the 20-year-old, who along with Conrad Cade came on for his first senior appearance towards the end of the rescheduled Gallagher Premiership clash.
“I grew up as a Falcons fan, me and my family used to come and watch them pretty much every home game all the way through my childhood, and it was great to see them all sat in the same part of the West Stand watching me make my debut on Saturday.
“I just loved coming to the games as a kid, and being able to play for the club now is really special. It was absolutely massive because this is what I’ve dreamed about since I was a boy, and now that I’ve had that little taste of it I just want to keep working hard to make sure it can happen again at some point in the future.”
Throwing himself around during his brief time on the field, Brantingham said: “It wasn’t very long, probably five minutes or thereabouts, but I still really enjoyed it. I was lucky enough to have a good few involvements during that time, and it flew by.
“You get really nervous when you’re there on the touchline or in the stand waiting to get called on, which is pretty terrifying, but Adam Radwan before the game said just to enjoy it and it’ll fly by. It was just a great feeling and amazing experience to make my debut for the club I’ve always supported, and as I say, to have my parents sat in the same seats where we used to all have our season tickets – looking over and seeing them watching me playing for the Falcons was a bit of a moment for us.”
Now being coached by one of his childhood idols, he explained: “Micky Ward was always someone I looked up to when I was a fan coming to watch the games, because he’s a local lad like myself and he played hundreds of games for the club.
“It’s awesome to be coached by him now on a daily basis, and I just want to keep learning as much as I can from him.”
Revealing his pathway through the system and how the club’s academy have helped him, he said: “I’m from Fenham in Newcastle, and have lived there all my life. I’m not too far from the stadium, in fairness, and it’s great to be able to play for your home-town team.
“I first got involved with the Falcons academy when I was 14 or 15, and I’d been playing some club rugby at Morpeth. I played under-15s, 16s and 18s with the Falcons, being coached by Jimmy Ponton, Mark Laycock and Aiden McNulty, and they really looked after me.
“The thing I think makes the real difference for the Falcons academy is just the number of different situations they put you in – they make you have that ability to adapt to what’s happening in a game, and to express yourself. A lot of times in rugby you obviously try to be as structured as possible and for everyone to know their roles, but at the same time the academy coaches at the Falcons really equipped us with the skills and the decision-making ability so that when it does break up, we’re able to exploit those opportunities.
“Even as a prop you’re encouraged to run, pass, look for space and to manage those situations, which I think is huge for the club. I know a lot of other clubs where they might have restricted you and not encouraged that, but it’s a real point of difference for us and means we’re not one-dimensional.
“I also played rugby league for Cramlington Rockets when I was around 14, and through that I got involved with Newcastle Thunder. I was actually in Thunder’s academy at the same time I was in the Falcons’ academy, and the two of them were really good in terms of how they worked together to manage my programme.
“At times my schedule was pretty tough with the school rugby to factor in as well, but it was really good how the Thunder and Falcons had a joined-up approach. I think it meant I got the best of both set-ups, and having some of those skills from rugby league I think does help at times in rugby union. The Falcons coaches were always keen for me to have that league input, because they could see the benefits I was getting from it. We even pushed in the rugby league scrums once or twice, just to see what happened!”
Keen to gather some more momentum following his debut, Brantingham said: “Now that I’ve had that little taster of first team rugby I just want to try and keep myself in the frame for selection, which I know is obviously hard with all the quality players we’ve got.
“I’m learning every day in training, and then maybe when it comes to the Premiership Cup or the European stuff I might get another sniff. I’ll just keep working hard, keep taking on good advice from the coaches and hopefully things can progress positively from there.”
Starting the current season a little late due to an injury picked up on international duty, Brantingham said: “I played the first three games of last year’s Under-20s Six Nations, and then in training ahead of the fourth match I tore my MCL in my knee. Someone just fell on the outside of it and it buckled a bit, which meant I missed the rest of the tournament and most of the Falcons’ pre-season.
“It was really frustrating because I was enjoying the tournament, but at least I can still say I helped play a part in England winning a Championship. I managed to get back around the end of September time, playing for Newcastle University and then going out on dual-reg to Blaydon.
“I’ve enjoyed it down at Blaydon, and like a lot of Falcons players have done over the years it’s basically just getting used to playing adult rugby, with the increased physicality and that sort of stuff. Some parts of the game are probably a bit slower than student rugby, but especially for a prop it’s really useful to have that exposure to a really physical type of game. The collisions are bigger, and it’s been good to be exposed to that.”
Newcastle Falcons’ next home game is against Exeter Chiefs on Sunday February 20. Click here to buy tickets for the 3pm kick-off.