“I think it’s a bit easier to understand League for people who don’t know so much about rugby,” concluded my wife after her first experience of the 13-a-side code. “There’s more movement and more tackles.”
Initially Union had caught her attention, starting with a visit to a Russian championship game and later catching some local action at Darlington Mowden Park but, with the season over, it was time to introduce something different. A brief, and somewhat hazy, account of the differences between the games and off to Kingston Park for the first time in close on 20 years.
The action quickly made an impact. More running rugby, less time with the ball on the floor, and only slight surprise at the six-tackle rule made for a more accessible spectacle than some of the turgid slog of pack on pack too often seen at the lower levels of the 15-a-side game. A good contest between the Thunder, battling to secure a top-half spot before the split, and the undefeated league leaders from Toulouse, also helped. Newcastle twice led in the first half, and might have built up a dominant advantage had they made more of their chances during a long spell of pressure on the French line. After the interval, Olympique – backed by an impressive travelling support that joined the club’s weekend tour at a cost of 600 Euros a head – found too many gaps in the home defence.
That rather sums up Thunder’s season; the programme was full of concerns from the coaches about good performances marred by 10-minute lapses where the opposition got soundly on top. Toulouse, coached by Sylvain Houles, once of London Broncos in their Superleague days, were more clinical when opportunity presented itself without ever looking as dominant as a team on a 10-game unbeaten streak might have expected.
The other big change was the transformation of Kingston Park. My previous visit came long before the growth of the Falcons into a Premiership franchise; although top flight rugby was on the menu, the opposition were West Hartlepool and the ground had a somewhat ramshackle feel. Now, it’s a model of a small-scale arena, compact and comfortable without completely sacrificing its character. Three covered stands, seated down the sides and terraced behind the goal, plus an uncovered terrace at the scoreboard end bring the capacity up to around 10,000. More importantly for the club’s finances, a large and well-appointed bar lubricates the atmosphere. A pitch side barbeque was a mixed blessing. A fiver for a burger, however tasty, felt a bit steep, and the persistent Northumbrian drizzle didn’t encourage anyone to linger at a picnic table.
More importantly, though, our Rugby League debutante enjoyed the day out. From the game itself to the ambience in the stand – and especially the sight of players and fans greeting each other after the hooter – she was impressed enough to want to come back … and maybe even take a trip along the M62 for some Superleague action in the coming months.
Kingston Park, Newcastle, England
Kingstone Press Division One, June 12 2016
Newcastle Thunder 22 Toulouse Olympique 32