Newcastle: Dean Richards has allowed 'accessible' Falcons to soar

Josh Matavesi, right, and Rob Vickers, left, celebrate Newcastle's last-minute defeat of Leicester that secured their semifinal place. David Rogers/Getty Images

Newcastle host Wasps on Saturday assured of their place in the Aviva Premiership semifinals, and with momentum as they chase a first title in two decades.

A trip to either Exeter or Saracens awaits in a fortnight, but qualifying for the playoffs in itself represents a huge achievement for a club that has previously failed to do so. In the 20 years since Newcastle lifted their solitary Premiership title the Falcons have finished no higher than sixth.

But things have been building at Kingston Park ever since director of rugby Dean Richards arrived in the wake of relegation in 2012. Last season the Falcons were eighth -- closer in points to Saracens in third than relegated Bristol -- and their highest league finish for more than a decade has proved to be a catalyst.

Yet, few outside of Newcastle would have expected what was to follow. The Falcons have been in contention for the top four for the entirety of the season and sealed their place with a run of six wins in seven Premiership matches that culminated in a first win at Welford Road in 20 years last Friday night.

Along the way, the club has managed to sell out Kingston Park for the first time since 2009, a feat it has repeated twice since, while staging a game at St James' Park in front of 30,174 fans. It has been a campaign to bring memories of the late-1990s glory days flooding back.

"The realistic goal was the top six," Josh Matavesi, who joined the club from Ospreys last summer, told ESPN. "We sat down in a preseason camp and we said where we wanted to get to, that we wanted to push for top four.

"Champions Cup was the main focus and everything extra from there, we had nothing to lose."

Newcastle's promising 2016-17 season and the club's ambitious plans were part of the sales pitch that convinced Matavesi to swap west Wales for north-east England. Of the players' preseason goal-setting session, he added: "We had a good chat, we had a realistic chat.

"As a professional athlete you want to win everything. We all want to win the league but realistically, [with] how competitive the league is, we wanted to get into that top six and kick on from what happened the season previously."

Under the guidance of Richards and head coach Dave Walder Newcastle have won more games than any other club outside of the Premiership top two, and with a game to go they have amassed 14 more points than they finished with last term. In Europe, the Falcons reached the semifinals of the Challenge Cup.

Matavesi feels that his director of rugby doesn't always get the credit he deserves, and certainly his appearance on live television last Friday night, beer in hand as he discussed the dramatic win over Leicester tallies with Richards' old school image. But for his Cornish-Fijian playmaker, that is exactly what has made Newcastle successful.

"He's approachable for a start," Matavesi said of his boss. "You never feel uncomfortable with Dean no matter what the question is and he likes a beer, he likes players to be rugby players. First and foremost we're rugby players and rugby's built on a good beer after a good win, or a beer after a loss [as you] think about it and mill over what's gone wrong.

"We are actually a proper rugby club. People come to the club after the game, it is a proper rugby club. People up there having a beer, the players are accessible and Dean has created that."

He added: "He's very diligent in his work, he's very clever. He does a lot behind the scenes that a lot of people don't see."

Fiji playmaker Matavesi will start at fly-half against Wasps on Saturday, although it is the No. 12 shirt that he has made his own this season. Playing alongside the likes of Toby Flood and international teammate Niki Goneva, the former Ospreys and Exeter player says he has found a club at which he feels comfortable to back himself.

A large part of that derives from the role Walder played in securing his signature. "I like to express myself and use my flair, and Dave really wanted to use what I am about and how I play rugby," he said. "He wanted to bring that to the club."

Newcastle's resurgence over the past two seasons has caught the imagination of England's rugby-supporting public. But Wasps will arrive at Kingston Park with little time for sentiment.

"Newcastle have been on fire," Wasps back row Jack Willis told ESPN. "It's going to be a tough game, but for us the focus is on building some momentum going into the semifinals.

"So, we've just got to go there and give them the respect they deserve because they've played very well all season. So for us it's just taking our game to them and building that momentum."