When a Premiership rugby union season begins, the odds are almost always stacked against the newly-promoted team avoiding relegation.
For Newcastle Falcons, who return to the top flight following relegation in 2019, those odds could be even steeper as they prepare to start again after a break of more than eight months.
Saturday, 13 March: Newcastle beat Bedford Blues 41-0 at home in the Championship to secure their 15th win in as many matches of their 2019-20 league campaign.
At the time, they were on course for a 100% record to emphatically seal an immediate return to the Premiership.
But just a few days later, their season was postponed as the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown began.
The Rugby Football Union would soon confirm it would not resume and the Falcons’ promotion was confirmed on a “best playing record formula”.
That decision placed the players into an early off-season in April, but none of them would have known it would last longer than any before it.
In fact, 253 days will have passed by the time Dean Richards’ side step out to face Bath at The Rec on Saturday lunchtime in their first match of the new Premiership season.
“It’s a relief to finally get here,” director of rugby Richards said. “Rather than it being the longest pre-season ever, it’s actually for us been the longest off-season ever, followed by a short pre-season.”
For the first three to four months of lockdown, Richards was unable to have any face-to-face contact with his players as the club shut down almost all its operations, immediately furloughing the majority of rugby staff even as the Premiership restarted its delayed season in August.
Squad quiz nights and socials over Zoom became the norm rather than having the chance to toast their promotion in person.
Richards himself even used his unexpected time off to revisit his previous career as a police officer, volunteering with Northumbria Police to prepare personal protective equipment for front line officers.
“For the first four to five months, we couldn’t really do anything,” Richards said. “When people did come into the club, it was on a part-time basis, so getting to understand the players’ physical shapes was quite difficult.
“It’s been too long to have to wait. You’ve got to take your hat off to the players really for how they’ve handled it all with incredible patience.
“Since being able to step up our return, we’ve had quite a lot of lower limb and muscular injuries as a result of deconditioning and then trying to get back into it suddenly.
“The worst of all of that has been in the past three months, we’ve also seen a lot of that in football and have been comparing notes with a few clubs on the strength and conditioning side.”
Falcons have only been able to play two actual matches since that spring victory against Bedford. Last season’s Championship adversaries Ealing Trailfinders have been willing opponents in home and away friendly fixtures to try to get the squad somewhere up to speed.
Among their new additions this season is former Northampton and England centre Luther Burrell, who makes a return to union after leaving Super League club Warrington Wolves in September.
Mark Wilson also returns from his season-long loan at Sale but he will miss the start of the campaign with a hamstring injury sustained on England duty.
Newcastle are expected to receive some tough tests on their return to the top flight as they face three of last season’s top five in the first three rounds in Bath, Sale and Wasps.
“It was a shame to end the Championship season the way it did,” Richards added. “At the time, we were playing some brilliant rugby and it would’ve been ideal to take that momentum into this season.
“As it is now, we’ll have a pretty tough period ahead to get back up to speed and to the level the other clubs are at, who aren’t that long off finishing the previous season.
“But we just have to keep learning to live with the effects of Covid-19, come to terms with it and adapt to it.
“Reacting and preparing for it is becoming the norm and the quicker you abide by that, the easier it becomes.”