Dean Richards and Newcastle Falcons: From Premiership strugglers to title contenders
|Aviva Premiership semi-final - Exeter Chiefs v Newcastle Falcons|
|Venue: Sandy Park Date: Saturday, 19 May Kick-off: 15:30 BST Coverage: Updates on BBC local radio and live scores on the BBC Sport website|
When Dean Richards took over at Newcastle Falcons in the summer of 2012, both parties were at a crossroads.
After the Falcons enjoyed Premiership success in the early years of professionalism, the glories of the late 1990s were faded memories.
Years of battling to avoid the drop had taken their toll, and the inaugural champions were to start that season in the Championship after relegation.
Richards - huge in both reputation and stature as a player and coach - had been to the heights of multiple European successes with Leicester and turned Harlequins from a Championship outfit to a top-flight contender.
However, the scandal of 'Bloodgate' - using a blood capsule to facilitate a tactical substitution in which he hoped to gain an advantage - saw him sacked by Quins and disgraced, bringing his career to a shuddering halt.
Alone, both Newcastle and Richards were in the doldrums.
But together they have blossomed; reinvigorated and reborn.
On the eve of the club's first play-off semi-final in Premiership history, BBC Sport looks at the factors behind the Falcons' flight of fantasy.
This year's success saw Richards collect the Premiership director of rugby of the year prize, while winger Vereniki Goneva won player of the year - reward for the tangible improvement made across the board.
Richards' 'Midas touch' at Newcastle was not an immediate one, but the measured overhaul of the club has been patient.
The 54-year-old arrived with trusted lieutenant John Wells - a colleague from his England and Leicester days - and their combination made Falcons a tougher proposition, building a close-knit culture and team ethic.
Adding the craft to their graft was achieved by the addition of former England, Falcons and Wasps fly-half Dave Walder.
The 40-year-old has been an inspired appointment since his return to Tyneside in 2014, was promoted to head coach last summer and has helped deliver a playing style that has entertained and brought success in equal measure.
Having the confidence to delegate and allow others to take control comes with experience, and Richards takes more of an overview of the club.
"As a player I was unconventional," Richards told BBC Radio 5 live. "As a director of rugby I still am a little bit. But there are boundaries you don't cross.
"Those boundaries are less and less in terms of coaching or director of rugby style. I'm very different to most. I'm not a hands-on style, but a steering the ship style.
"There's a lot of pushing and shoving from behind."
Richards has also ensured there is a continuity and a relevance to the personnel, with another ex-Falcon in scrum coach Micky Ward and lock Scott McLeod taking responsibility for the line-outs.
'Award shows remarkable longevity'
Analysis - Chris Jones, BBC rugby union reporter
Richards last won the director of rugby award in 2001 when in charge of Leicester, so the fact he is scooping it almost two decades later is a sign of his remarkable longevity and his ability to reinvent his squads, and himself as a coach.
Much like when he was at Harlequins, Richards has overseen a long-term plan at Newcastle, with canny recruitment and sensible delegation two of his many strengths.
Richards insists the England job is not for him; the Rugby Football Union may always wonder what might have been.
Featuring an alumni that includes England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, Australia full-back Matthew Burke and New Zealand front-rower Carl Hayman to name but three, it is not as if Newcastle fans have been forced to accept second-best in terms of players over the past 20 years.
However, not even those legends of the game have triggered the same success as the current crop at Kingston Park.
Season-by-season improvement has made the Falcons a far more attractive prospect, while the Richards effect is still a draw for top players.
"We're confident in what we're doing, we're confident in training, our analysis, our preparation and that brings a more relaxed feel," England international Mark Wilson told BBC Newcastle.
"We know we're in good hands and everyone's mucking in and doing their jobs.
"If you look after what you do and what you bring to the club, we all come together and reap the rewards."
The mix of home-grown talents such as Wilson, recent England call-up Gary Graham and Chris Harris have dovetailed beautifully with carefully selected imports - Sinoti Sinoti, Goneva and scrum-half Sonatane Takulua.
Last summer also saw the shrewd capture of 'local-boy done good' Toby Flood, who having progressed his career away from Newcastle with giants Leicester, returned from a stint with Toulouse to guide the Falcons.
"You have to buy into Dean," ex-England winger Ugo Monye told BBC Sport's Rugby Union Weekly podcast. "You might not be his best mate. You have to put your ego to one side, he doesn't want to get on with everyone and he shouldn't.
"He's so cocksure about what he wants to do, but he gets results."
Already lined up for next season are Leicester's ball-carrying prop Logovi'i Mulipola and London Irish centre Jonny Williams, as Richards continues to tinker and upgrade the player pool.
Not only are Flood and Goneva elite players with international experience, but they also came from winning cultures and have spread that winning mentality throughout the squad.
This campaign has seen Falcons break records on and off the pitch, with more than 30,000 fans attending a regular-season game at Newcastle United's St James' Park and the securing of Champions Cup rugby before their top-four efforts which ensured a highest finish in 20 years.
Their victory at Leicester in the penultimate game was Newcastle's first at Welford Road in 21 years, fuelled by belief they can match anyone in the Premiership elite.
"It's winning the big games, being competitive in the big matches," Richards told BBC Newcastle.
"We're doing that, we've shown we can beat the big sides from Exeter to Northampton, but ultimately we have to beat Wasps and Saracens."
As much as Richards puts belief into his players, there is also the element of his personality, his will to win, that has another effect on the people under his management.
"He does instil a fear factor which does get the best out of not just the players, but the video analysts, the physio," Monye said.
"If the physio says two weeks, Dean will be wanting him back in a week.
"He is always pushing the envelope, perhaps that was some of his downfall - look at 'Bloodgate'. He'll forever be remembered for that, and I hope that's not the defining moment in his career.
"It shouldn't be the defining moment, because he's done so many good things."
Richards, Flood, Goneva - all key facets to the Falcons' revival, but none of whom would be at Newcastle if were not for the impact of owner Semore Kurdi.
Little is known about the 'Geordie Jordanian', who established his business in the north east but has remained anonymous as the club he bankrolls charged up the Premiership table.
He has been helped by Richards' rugby union nous and the business expertise of former Wigan rugby league chief executive Mick Hogan in off-the-field matters.
Kurdi's intervention when Dave Thompson sought to sell the club in 2011 has coincided with the Falcons' upturn.
Plans are in place for a new stand at the North Terrace of the ground, as the off-field side of the business seeks to keep pace with their on-field counterparts.
"It probably wouldn't have survived if the truth be known," Richards told BBC Radio 5 live.
"The club was on its last legs and you only have to look at the renovations within the club and the way the club is going to understand it's gone a long way."