Ahead of his 17th season as a professional, Newcastle and former England fly-half Toby Flood tells NEALE HARVEY how his side are gearing up for the new season.
This must have been the weirdest period of your lengthy career?
Absolutely. Our situation at Newcastle has been as odd as it gets for any team. We finished in March against Bedford not really knowing what was coming around the corner and since the RFU decided the Championship was finished and declared us champions, we’ve just been in limbo really. Everyone knew Saracens were coming down but we had to wait for Premiership Rugby to decide what they were going to do before we at least had some idea of an end point. From March onwards it’s been very abstract but we’ve just tried to keep going and finally we’re about to start again.
How have Falcons as a club dealt with the Covid-19 crisis?
We’re in line with the majority of the Premiership in that guys have taken salary cuts and everyone’s taken that on board. It was a shock when it happened but given the depth of the pandemic people have realised its impact in a wider sense. We couldn’t train together for months, but eventually we came back in small, socially-distanced groups and it’s been managed as well as it could have been.
There have been various dire warnings over the future of clubs, so how have Newcastle gone about reassuring guys their careers are safe?
They’ve been as proactive as they can be. I don’t think anyone’s going to open up over their finances too much because there’s a degree of confidentiality there, but we’ve had a fair few face-to-face chats with the management here and everyone’s been as open as possible. The bottom line is it’s the first time a situation like this has ever hit the game so there’s never been a precedent and you wouldn’t wish this situation on our owner, Semore Kurdi, or Dean Richards or any of the coaches and staff. Without doubt, there have been questions from the squad at times, but we’ve had those discussions and it’s been handled pretty well. We’re still intact and we’re looking forward to the new season now.
You have two friendlies lined up against Ealing, starting this coming Saturday, so how long have you been back in full training now?
We’ve had about nine weeks together and the boys kept themselves fit before that, so while it feels like the longest pre-season ever, we’re nearly there. It’ll be so interesting when we face Ealing next weekend but I’m just looking forward to getting out there again. It’s been such a protracted period with no rugby and you’re unsure how things will go because although we’ve had in-house hit-outs against each other, there’s always a bit of ring-rust in pre-season. That rustiness will be even greater off the back of what’s happened and we’ve also got to adapt to not having crowds, so it’s going to be a rapid learning curve but it’s a challenge we’re ready to embrace.
What shape are you in personally?
I’ve just tried to keep going throughout because if I stop training my body just falls apart. I’m no spring chicken anymore and if I get whacked it hurts and the pain hangs around for longer than it did when I was 20 or 21. But I actually feel pretty happy with where I am physically and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to rest, recover and get on top of any niggles I had from last season.
Falcons have a stable squad with some decent additions like Luther Burrell, so are you happy with what you’ve got ahead of the new campaign?
It’s been very positive on that front. We’ve held on to a good few guys and have Matias Orlando coming in after the Rugby Championship, plus Luther is getting up to speed again, so we do have a good squad. Yes, we lost some guys like Simon Hammersley and Zach Kibirige after we got relegated last year, but Mark Wilson’s now back and we’ll have Phil van der Walt fit again. He’s hardly played a game for 18 months so is chomping at the bit and unlike a lot of other sides who will have lots of internationals away and other guys undergoing surgery or resting at the end of a hectic Premiership run-in, we’ll have a squad that is settled and a bit more consistent personnel-wise.
Having been out of action for so long will you be able to get up to speed quickly enough?
It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? We’re fit and fresh and haven’t got many injuries or people missing, but the flip-side is other sides have been going at it since August and are battle-hardened. They’re used to playing in games without crowds and used to prepping for games amid the Covid restrictions, which we haven’t done yet so we’ve got that learning process to go through. They’ve also been playing at a level we haven’t played at since we were relegated in 2019 so it’s going to be a very interesting challenge for us. Ealing will give us a guide to where we are over the next fortnight and we’ll then have to adapt going into our first league game at Bath.
With everything that’s happening and the intense financial pressure on all clubs, is it time to look at ring-fencing the top-flight?
Pandemics like this certainly highlight the fragilities and issues within your sport. With players’ salaries being reduced, and the RFU having to cull jobs, everything’s being streamlined to a point. The conversation always swings back to how sustainable is this sport? There are pros and cons to the arguments over ring-fencing. You want to have a situation where teams are rewarded for ambition and wanting to achieve top-flight rugby, but at the same time you want to protect the lifeblood of England Rugby in terms of your players and not having that yo-yo effect around the stability of the club structure at the highest level. The issue is there are 13 members of Premiership Rugby and Ealing who are desperate to come up, but beyond that I’m not too sure whether others want to come up – in fact, I’m sure a lot of them aren’t keen. I don’t know which way the RFU and Premiership Rugby will go but could they get to a hybrid situation where it’s ring-fenced for a period and every so often a space might be opened up for a new team to come in? I think that might offer a better long-term solution to what we have.
There’s a school of thought that Saracens and Ealing might come up next year to make a 14-team Premiership, then shut the door for two or three years. Thoughts on that?
I have heard those rumours and Ealing are obviously showing a lot of intent around their recruitment and the infrastructure they’re putting in place. There’s definitely scope for it, but does it mean you have a better or worse product? To remove some of the excitement and drama of relegation, I don’t know. What you don’t want to happen is create more of those dead rubber matches where ninth plays tenth and there’s no impact, but that can happen at the relegation end anyway if one side gets left behind as has happened on a number of occasions.
You turned 35 in August, any thoughts about retiring?
No, I feel pretty good. When you’ve not played for seven months your body feels fine, but the proof will be when we’re six games in and you’ve been smashed about a bit. I’m really happy with how I feel at the moment but when fatigue levels rise and the contact is rampedup, it will be interesting to see how I feel then. I’m one of the senior members of our squad, but I’m enjoying it still and I have another two years on my contract. There are plans in motion around my eventual retirement and it would be remiss of me not to prepare properly for that, but hopefully I’ll see that contract through and retire on my own terms.
You’ve got some business interests on the boil, haven’t you?
Yes. I came back from playing in France in 2017 with a couple of business contacts and set up a wine company called Feel Good Grapes with my business partner, Mike Turner. It’s an eco-friendly wine company which is all organic, all sustainable, all carbon offset and we’ve just tried to do something that’s a bit unique. Whether it sustains through the pandemic remains to be seen but the idea is for it to become viable as a conscience-clear brand and so far it’s been really enjoyable. Throughout the pandemic we’ve been running webinar tasting sessions and that’s been really positive so we’re hoping to build up a good core trade. We’ve been doing it for 18 months and it certainly helped during lockdown to have something to get my teeth into.
Any coaching ambitions?
I’ve only been doing bits and pieces to date but I’ve jumped on a couple of courses and I’m just trying to keep my options open because you never say never. Matt Smith, a good friend of mine at Leicester, swore he’d never be a coach but is now coaching their academy, so we’ll see what happens. I’m enjoying working with the younger lads at Falcons and we’ve got some good half-backs like Will Haydon-Wood, Brett Connon and Joel Hodgson who are eager to learn and keep improving. While they don’t necessarily need me, if I can help I will.
How proud are you of a career which started against Wasps in 2004/5?
Blimey, that makes me sound very old! Someone said to me recently that if I see out my current contract, I might end up playing with someone who was born in the year I started – now that really is terrifying! I remember when one of our back rowers, Rob Farrar, joined our academy and he was born in March 2000, so you realise how old you are getting – and that was two years ago! I’m pretty proud of my career. It feels odd in some senses to be back at Newcastle looking to finish my career here. It’s a lovely full circle via Leicester and Toulouse and although it was pretty daunting to be starting that first game against Wasps all those years ago, to have played 300-odd games at club level and won 60 England caps, I’m pretty happy with that. I’ve had some fantastic experiences, winning a few trophies and playing with some great players along the way, so hopefully there’s a little more success to come before I hang up the boots.
How do you rate England under Eddie Jones?
If you speak to Mark Wilson, he’s pretty happy with how things are going there, which is a good barometer. You hear these rumours about how England train them too hard, but it’s one of those fine lines you ride as a coach where if you’re trying to prepare your team for tough international matches, you have to train them pretty hard. Eddie’s done a wonderful job and while I know some people in the Press don’t like him and he can rub people up the wrong way, whenever you get an insight into the camp the message I get is all the boys really respect and like him. That’s all you can really ask for as a coach. They got to a World Cup final and to have achieved what they’ve done with Six Nations titles, Grand Slams and winning a series in Australia, his winning record is really good. Eddie’s been positive for English rugby and inspired a lot of players to achieve good things.
Owen Farrell and George Ford have owned the No.10 jersey for a good while, who do you see threatening them now?
There’s too many good fly-halves in the Prem, that’s the problem – it makes us old boys look bad! Joe Simmonds will be disappointed not to be in this latest squad but Jacob Umaga has been playing well and he had a very good game for Wasps in the Premiership final in torrid conditions, so he’s pushing hard now along with Marcus Smith. Ford and Farrell have been stalwarts of Eddie’s regime but there are lots of talented lads making their mark. With Eddie, he’s got two good, senior players who’ve complemented each other very well over four or five years, so while they’re winning they’ll probably stay involved, but that can sometimes be to the detriment of younger players like Umaga, Smith and Simmonds who without doubt should be involved at some point. Umaga’s getting looked at now and Marcus has been around the Premiership for a few seasons and scores wonderful tries, runs a game well and his goal-kicking has been outstanding. The argument is how do you get these guys involved, so the challenge for them is to be so good and consistent for their clubs each week that Eddie cannot not pick them. You could argue that guys like Simmonds have done that and still not been selected, but all they can do is maintain their high standards and opportunities will come, surely. It will be fascinating to see if there is a turnover in half-back personnel over the next year or whether Eddie’s going to stick with his more senior guys for another full four-year World Cup cycle.
Back to Falcons finally, who are the stars we can expect to see emerge once your Premiership campaign kicks off in three weeks’ time?
It’s always hard to predict because injuries can create opportunities for guys who might otherwise not get a chance, but Phil van der Walt, left, is a very good, experienced back rower who I think will make a fantastic impact if he stays fit and gets a good run of games. We’ve got some very good young forwards in Will Montgomery, Tom Marshall, Rob Farrar and Connor Collett who’ve got a very good chance of being involved and our winger, Adam Radwan, had a great year for us in the Championship and is ready to burst onto the top-flight scene. Hopefully, all these boys will get a chance and we’ll go to Bath on the opening day with a lot of optimism. We’ve all missed that adrenaline rush and we’ll be flying into that game looking to make a good start.