There haven’t been many occasions over the past five years when two of my challenges to raise mental health awareness were ticked off on the same day; but that’s exactly what happened on my recent visit to Kingston Park.
The initial reason for travelling up to the ground that hosts both Newcastle Falcons (rugby union) and Newcastle Thunder (rugby league) was to attempt to kick a conversion, but when Thunder’s Head Coach Jason Payne offered me the chance to chat to his squad about my experiences and challenges, I was more than happy to accept.
Newcastle Thunder was previously known (in numerous former lives) as Gateshead Thunder, and the club brought rugby league to the north east in an unforgettable summer of thrilling Super League action in 1999. The events that followed that amazing season are well-documented, but the fact that the club still exists is testament to the numerous people over the years who have worked tirelessly to keep north east professional rugby league alive.
Thunder was a massive part of my life when I lived in Gateshead and even though I have moved away, I’m still in touch with numerous fans and former players and always keep up-to-date with results. The club was, is and always will be very special.
The 2018 squad plays in League 1 and is currently mid-table but closing in on the play-off places. Jason was kind enough to let me sit in on the squad’s mid-season review, and whilst it wouldn’t be right to mention anything that was discussed, what I will say is that Thunder has a squad of determined, united and impressive athletes; and it certainly would come as no surprise to see the club continue climbing the table.
I was invited to speak at the end of the meeting; it’s actually quite daunting talking to a group of people you don’t know (Jason and club captain Joe Brown apart), but I was given a positive response (which was much appreciated) and talking to the players provided a brief distraction from my upcoming kicking duties.
After the short talk, a couple of the lads came over to shake my hand and say a few words before we headed out onto the pitch for the second part of the evening.
Place-kicking a rugby ball in 2018 is not the same as it was the last time I slotted over a conversion – I reckon it was somewhere around 1980. Back then the ball had laces, weighed a proverbial ton and you had to dig a divot out of the turf and create a mound on which to place the ball…
No divots these days, especially on Kingston Park’s synthetic pitch; instead the much lighter ball is placed at an appropriate angle on a plastic kicking tee.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well when you’re surrounded by a group of elite athletes, the answer is quite a lot. The first attempt was scuffed, the second drifted wide of the upright … as did the third. The ball was moved closer to the posts, but that didn’t stop the ball from sailing just outside the right-hand post once again. All very reminiscent of Don Fox in the classic 1968 “water splash” Challenge Cup final.
“He’s a poor lad!”
Plenty of encouragement (and understandable laughter) from the players behind me – whose training session I was now shortening – but the next kick was sweetly struck and flew high over the middle of the crossbar. Cheers and applause echoed around the stadium – sort of – and just in case you want to relive the magical moment … here’s the video of the penultimate and belatedly successful kicks.
I want to say a massive thank you to Jason and the whole Newcastle Thunder squad for making me feel so welcome. I’m heading back to Kingston Park next month to watch the team in action – and if anyone wants to book a kicking master class … I’m always available!