Newcastle Falcons open to Saudi investment with drastic squad cut looming

Steve Diamond, now with Newcastle Falcons
Steve Diamond would welcome new investment into Newcastle Falcons - Getty Images/Alex Davidson

Newcastle Falcons’ consultant director of rugby Steve Diamond has confirmed that the club are considering Saudi Arabian investment as they prepare to make swingeing cuts to their squad.

The Gallagher Premiership’s bottom club are preparing to trim up to 20 players in a streamlining exercise over the next fortnight as they seek to stabilise their financial position.

However, Saudi investment in Newcastle could be on the horizon. Telegraph Sport revealed in January that Leicester Tigers, Gloucester, Northampton Saints and Newcastle had held discussions with the Saudi sovereign Public Investment Fund (PIF) over seven-figure investments into the clubs.

The Saudis’ sporting influence on Newcastle – which is already considerable with the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund owning Newcastle United – could now expand.

“Our owner Semore Kurdi has been to meet various dignitaries from Saudi Arabia with a view to Newcastle assisting them to build a rugby academy over there to attract sevens competitions. They are coming to either the Leicester, Bath or Sale game to get a feel for it,” Diamond told Telegraph Sport.

“It’s early days but that will hopefully result in some sort of partnership moving forwards. Fingers crossed. Watch this space.

“If the owners of Newcastle United wanted to invest in Newcastle rugby I’m sure we’d all listen. One of their players’ salaries would potentially enable us to win the competition.”

The Saudis are starting to divert resources into rugby at grass-roots level with the ministry of education adding the sport to the PE curriculum earlier this month.

Sevens is a particular focus with it being an Olympic discipline but exploratory discussions have been held over potential investment in the Premiership.

Without it Newcastle, who already operate on the smallest budget in the top flight, having been kept afloat by Kurdi, a Jordanian businessman with a passion for rugby, since 2011, are resigned to cutting back even further.

“It’s nothing like a Worcester or a London Irish situation. There’s no fear of it going like the others have gone but equally the investor wants to run it as economically as he can while still being competitive. What we are working through at the moment is how to run it as sustainably as possible,” said Diamond, who takes charge of his first Premiership game with the club at Exeter Chiefs on Saturday.

“Currently the squad, with the academy, is 50+, and that is going to be whittled down to 34 so you don’t have to have a first in maths to work out there will be 15 to 20 players leaving.

“That’s for two reasons. One, I don’t think they are good enough to get to the standard we want and two, the financial position dictates that we’re going to spend 50 per cent of what the rest will be spending.

“I’ve told the lads that we will get these next two games out of the way and then will sit down and be honest and direct with them. It’s unfair because people have families and this is their livelihood. It’s the dirty end of the stick. There will be some people who will be upset, some people who expect it but we need to give them as much opportunity as possible to get another contract if it’s not with Newcastle.”

Nor are the coaching staff safe. They are on trial too.

“If you have an inexperienced team scrapping at the bottom of the league then your coaching has to be bang on,” he said. “They have some really good quality staff here. The jury is out on one or two. This period will be an opportunity to show their wares and deliver their message.”

Diamond believes that even without desert investment a make-do-and-mend model can be competitive. It is the same one he employed during his early years at Sale when the Sharks consistently confounded financial reality.

“There are a lot of parallels,” Diamond said. “What we have to do is outperform the other teams on recruitment and have a sharp academy. We can do that.”

In the short term he is hands-on at training, intent on hardening up Newcastle with an emphasis on what the former hooker refers to as “legal violence”.

A friendly victory at Sale during the Premiership’s hiatus suggests his methods are making an impact.

“You can’t just employ thuggery – we need some skill and guile – but you can make up for a lack of quality with endeavour,” he said.

“Albeit it was a friendly but we delivered a really gutsy performance at Sale. Over the last couple of years Newcastle have lost the fight and we didn’t this time.

“We weren’t whooping and hollering afterwards but it sets us up well for Exeter.”

With six matches left, Newcastle are fighting to save face. They could become the first team since London Welsh in 2014-15 to end a season without winning a league game.

“That is not going to happen,” insisted Diamond.

Diamond hits out at Premiership ‘super clubs’ for hiving off talent

Steve Diamond says the English game will be damaged if youngsters continue to be “trapped in the bowels of a super club” and starved of Premiership appearances.

Diamond confirmed on Thursday that both Guy Pepper and Louie Johnson will be leaving Newcastle at the end of the season. Pepper, the 20-year-old flanker who started for England A last month against Portugal and was called into Steve Borthwick’s squad for the final Six Nations game in Lyon, has been heavily linked with Bath.

Johnson, also 20, is thought to be joining the fly-half stocks at Saracens in the wake of Owen Farrell’s exit. There, he will join another Falcons leaver in Phil Brantingham, the 22-year-old loosehead prop.

Diamond, who was appointed by Newcastle in January as a consultant director of rugby to succeed Alex Codling, suggested that pay was not a factor in those respective moves. He insisted that Brantingham, Johnson and Pepper “certainly won’t” get as much game-time at their new clubs and warned them to “be careful they are not just another name on the roster”.

“We will be owed some compensation and it’s a loss but there’s no point crying over spilt milk,” Diamond said. “You would imagine they want to win things and that is what the super clubs would have said to them. Saracens have a track record of winning things… Bath haven’t.”

Diamond reiterated that he will cut Falcons squad size down to around 34 next season, mirroring the strategy that served him well at Sale Sharks, after first revealing that in an interview to Telegraph Sport. He also repeated his vow that Newcastle, who have lost all 12 Premiership fixtures so far this season and will resume their campaign at Sandy Park against Exeter Chiefs on Saturday, will not end the domestic campaign without a victory.

Having also held a consultancy role with the Rugby Football Union in continuing discussions over the second tier of the league pyramid, Diamond remains passionate about playing opportunities for young players.

“The basis of running a club on a sustainable budget is making sure your academy produces,” he added. “We’re losing three good players who have come through the academy. My advice to those players was not to go, even if they were only going to sign for one or two years here, because they’d get more out of playing for me, playing week-in, week-out, than they will do trapped in the bowels of the super clubs.

“The irony of it is that by natural wastage, the league has gone down three teams to 10. That’s what everybody wanted. Everybody said: ‘Hey, now we’ve got a really great model and a de-conflicted season.’ Yet every club is trying to play bloody friendlies. I don’t get it. Why are we doing that? Oh, right, because we owe season-ticket money back to people. I’m reasonably hardcore about it. We have to put in place at Newcastle certain barriers to release, i.e. when a player can leave and when he can’t.

“That’s done by contracting. Those [contracts] aren’t in place [now], for whatever reason, and there’s been a turnover of coaches – Alex Codling, Dave Walder, Dean Richards. I don’t dive into the archive, I know how to run it. I know that with 34 players, or 36 players with 12 kids, you’ve got to be a good coach. The other coaches, with 60 or 70 players, why do they need to play a kid? They don’t need to. The average lifespan in the league, apart from myself Dean Richards, Rob Baxter and Mark McCall, who’ve done 10 years, is  probably two and a half or three years. They [the others] don’t give a s--- about playing kids.

“It becomes a necessity for clubs like Newcastle that those kids play. And it also becomes a necessity for bringing English coaches through because if you’re coaching with 30 or 40 players, as opposed to 60, you’ve got to fit these kids in at the right time and do all your work in training so that these kids are matured right physically, they have the skills and the knowledge and belief to come into the team. If they’re out on loan to National One clubs they get a bit of game-time, but it won’t be good enough for them, or good for English rugby.”

While Diamond believes that most Premiership clubs value their production lines, he believes that others are causing harm with their approaches to recruitment.

“I think a lot of clubs are in a similar thought process to me, but there will always be one or two that buck the trend,” Diamond said. “Rugby is such a unique team sport that you can level it up. You don’t need to have superstars all the time. Home-grown players, like Sale, Saracens and Harlequins have got, are great. But if you’re another club who hand-picks from other academies… that’s why you see no success.”

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