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Last Updated:  Sunday, 25 August, 2002, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Newcastle Falcons

Last Season: 6th
Prediction: 10th
Director of rugby: Rob Andrew
Coaches: Steve Bates/Andrew Blades
Captain: Jonny Wilkinson
Title odds: 20-1

Last season

The Falcons enjoyed a solid campaign in the Premiership, but were pipped by Northampton for the final Heineken Cup spot after being in the top five for most of the year.

Beating champions Leicester on the opening day raised hopes of a possible title challenge, and they lost only one of their opening eight games.

But the distraction of the protracted racism row involving flanker Epi Taione and Gloucester hooker Olivier Azam saw the Falcons' form stutter in the new year.

A dismal first Heineken Cup campaign ended at the group stage, while a late attempt to secure a place in this year's competition ended with a 60-point mauling by Gloucester in the Zurich Championship.


Ins and Outs

Five senior Falcons who helped Newcastle win the title in 1998 have finally flown the Kingston Park nest, and will be sorely missed.

Scotland veterans Gary Armstrong, Doddie Weir and George Graham have headed back to the Borders, while Samoan stars Pat Lam and Inga Tuigamala have called it a day.

Rob Andrew has recruited promising Leicester scrum-half James Grindal and Northampton utility back Joe Shaw, but a huge void in experience still remains.

The most important addition though could be former Wallabies World Cup winning prop Andrew Blades as Andrew's assistant coach.


Rising stars

Hugh Vyvyan

A rangy lock who asserted himself in a big way last season to nail down a regular starting place ahead of the more experienced Weir.

England recognition followed with selection for May's Twickenham romp against the Barbarians, and the summer trip to Argentina.

The 25-year-old captained the midweek side against Argentina A, and his increased authority and diligence will be vital to the Falcons' hopes this terms.

Hall Charlton

With the evergreen Gary Armstrong finally out of the way, Charlton has the chance to make the scrum-half berth his own after being handed more regular starts last season.

Faces competition from new arrival James Grindal, but the 22-year-old has already featured in England training squads and will want to show he can cut it with the best.


Prediction

Newcastle are notoriously hard to beat at Kingston Park, but Andrew has his work cut out to build on the foundations he has laid during his seven years at the helm.

With a clutch of seasoned internationals now departed, the baton has been passed to the young guns in a squad whose average age is just 24.

As captain and principal points scorer, the fitness and form of Jonny Wilkinson is vital, but he has plenty of talent outside him in Tom May, Jamie Noon, Dave Walder and Michael Stephenson.

Much will depend on how much Blades can coax from what appears a rather lightweight pack; otherwise even a third consecutive top six spot could prove beyond them.




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Falcons captain Jonny Wilkinson
"Great opportunity to stage we're at"



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