ALAN Tait’s departure as Newcastle Falcons head coach proves how firm foundations and long-term planning matter little in the sporting world without results on the field, says MARK SMITH.
ALAN TAIT was always a reluctant front-man at Kingston Park, shedding grandiose director of rugby billing for the more blue-collar head coach title upon his appointment in May 2010.
The Scot, a Great Britain star in both rugby league and union as a player, had already turned down the job months earlier when then-chairman Dave Thompson had offered it in the immediate aftermath of a heavy defeat at Saracens.
Tait talked Thompson round into giving Bates another a chance during a long car journey from Watford, but when the former England scrum-half was shown the door just days after a win at Sale Sharks – one which had secured Premiership safety in style – the offer was too good to resist.
In reality his role was exactly the same as that undertaken by Bates and John Fletcher before him, minus the clerical distraction of player contract negotiations which were ceded to chief executive Dave Bell.
Bates and Tait had not been the easiest of bedfellows towards the end of their tenure, with the Scot frustrated by his boss’s conservatism and laissez-faire attitude to behind-the-scenes infrastructure.
Top players had already left the club, openly stating to the management that Newcastle had failed to move on from their one-and-only Premiership title success in 1998 – one in which Tait had been a key figure. Training methods, conditioning techniques and medical facilities had stood still for a decade while others moved on, and Tait was adamant that the stagnation would not continue on his watch.
Instigating a complete overhaul of the fitness team, medical, training ground, video analysis and academy set-ups, he brought the club in line with most Premiership norms and ahead in others. Players received the best possible treatment, prepared tactics in state-of-the-art video suites and had every nutritional need catered for.
The problem was they still kept getting beat, and by looking to the horizon he had not fully tackled what was immediately in front of him. Recruitment had undoubtedly been the biggest bug-bear for Tait, especially with the timing of his appointment leaving little scope for him to make his mark on the transfer market. By May 2010 Bates had already signed a welter of players on long-term deals, many of whom Tait did not rate or want.
The change in coaching style was marked.
Bates – a former public school-master who has since returned to the profession at Fettes College in Edinburgh – was a hands-off figure and an advocate of player power. Tait, in contrast, had his fingers in every pie and would not tolerate dissent.
Brought up in the hard-school of winter rugby league, the ex-Kelso roofer expected the same ruthless devotion that he himself had shown as a player. It was ‘my way or the highway’, and those not on board were sent to Coventry. It resonated with some and was loathed by others, but the Press loved it. Having suffered a season of ‘taking the positives from defeat’ at Bates’ weekly media gatherings, it went from famine to feast as Tait delivered brutal honesty and juicy sound-bites at every turn. He said what was on his mind, never ducked a question and there was rarely a dull moment with his unbridled enthusiasm to take the club forward.
In the post Jonny Wilkinson era, however, gates were down, and so as a result was the Falcons’ ability to keep pace with their rivals on player salaries. Tait, a self-confessed bargain-hunter, was forced down into the Championship and overseas markets for the bulk of his buys, but he did unearth a few gems.
Winger Luke Fielden (pictured) from Bedford, Auckland lock Andrew Van der Heijden, Blaydon centre James Fitzpatrick and Munster back Jeremy Manning all rewarded the head coach’s faith. Many others did not, and the days of signing Premiership regulars and Tri-Nations icons had long gone as they survived last season on points-difference alone.
Still, Tait maintained his enthusiasm for the current campaign despite private admissions that his playing budget realistically meant another campaign of struggle.
“I won’t whinge about money,” he said, and, to his credit, he was as good as his word. The Semore Kurdi takeover in late-September came three months too late with the signing season all but closed, and when the World Cup passed by with just a single win for the Falcons, the slope ahead of them became a vertical rock face.
Injuries were always going to take their toll on a squad so thin, and even the injection of new arrivals Corne Uys, Taiasina Tu’ifua, Suka Hufanga, Adriaan Fondse, Michael Mayhew and Tom Bedford could not steer the ship back on course.
With every week and every defeat the calls for Tait’s head became louder.
Trailing to relegation rivals Worcester in November, he candidly admitted he had considered resigning before Mayhew scored a late leveller.
In defeat to Exeter two months later he repeated the sentiment, and at that point the dye was cast. A league record of just six wins in 36 speaks for itself, and the departing boss was typically up-front about his own role in the demise.
In an era of blame culture he became the rare exception and blamed himself. Fair play for that.
Despite being now nine points adrift at the bottom of the league and staring relegation in the face, it was not all bad during Tait’s time.
Dramatic passage to last season’s LV=Cup final certainly warmed the cockles, even if the showpiece fizzled out without a bang, and home wins over Gloucester and Wasps marked both of his campaigns.
But his departure was a predictable end to a tenure which looks likely to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Championship rugby beckons for the first time in 16 years, and the road to safety remains a bumpy one.