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Falcons receive grounds for hope; Tait's men may be thrown a league lifeline.

Byline: Mark Smith

NEWCASTLE Falcons could be thrown an unlikely Aviva Premiership lifeline by the strict entry criteria for teams wishing to join English rugby's top flight.

The Falcons are nine points adrift at the bottom of the table with nine games left to go, but could still be spared the drop if the Championship winners fail to fulfil a complex list of ground and infrastructure requirements.

On a day when no fresh light was shed on Alan Tait's future as head coach, The Journal can reveal only leaders Bristol and fifth-placed Leeds Carnegie are expected to meet the extensive standards for Premiership entry.

Even then, the waters are muddied further thanks to stadium ownership issues.

It could all very easily lead to the farcical situation of Newcastle Falcons finishing their season on May 5 as the topflight's bottom team but having to wait until May 30 at the soonest to learn their fate.

A messy appeals process may then still be mounted due to the entangled issue over primacy of tenure - the ability of promoted clubs to have first call on the use of their stadium in the event of a fixture clash.

Both Leeds and Bristol share their home grounds - Leeds with the Rhinos rugby league team and Bristol with Bristol Rovers Football Club - while the Falcons have no such issues as the sole sporting side at their Kingston Park home. A well-placed source told The Journal: "If the club winning the Championship does not have primacy of tenure, and the bottom club in the Premiership does, then nothing happens. Nobody is promoted or relegated "Primacy of tenure and, most importantly, how you prove it, is at the nub of the whole thing."

Further complicating an already tangled web is the fact all clubs wishing to make the step up from the Championship must submit their official applications by early March, including home stadium details, despite not knowing if they are even in with a chance of winning the league.

The Championship's regular season finishes on February 25 before the top eight teams enter into two groups of four to play home-and-away games through March and April.

The top two in each group then contest two-leg semi-finals in early May before the home-and-away final on May 23 and 30 decides the ultimate winner.

Bristol are the runaway leaders at present and overwhelming favourites to top the regular-season standings, but the lottery of play-off rugby means nothing is assured until the end of the knock-out stages.

Second-placed Bedford have already stated their intention to remain a Championship side regardless of their finishing position, while The Journal understands third-placed London Welsh, fourthplaced Cornish Pirates, sixth-placed Rotherham and eighth-placed Doncaster are all expected to fall short of the Premiership entry criteria.

Only Nottingham in seventh could realistically throw their hat in the ring to tick the necessary boxes, although their current status as co-habitants of the County Ground with Notts County Football Club again raises the primacy of tenure obstacle.

It could all culminate in a protracted legal process with appeal and counterappeal although, with a maximum of 45 points still available to Newcastle Falcons, their status as the top-flight's bottom side is still far from certain.

The manner of Saturday's 16-10 defeat to Exeter suggested the Kingston Park club have a mountain to climb, but they ended the week better than they started it as Tim Swinson's late try and Jimmy Gopperth's conversion secured a valuable losing bonus point.

Second-bottom London Wasps are up for sale and without a league win since October 28, with the once-mighty capital club's next Premiership assignment being a daunting date with champions Saracens.

The Premiership fixture list sees the Falcons travelling to Wasps on the last day of the season, but the relegation race could still have plenty of running left even after the final whistle.

HOW THEY STAND AVIVA PREMIERSHIP RUGBY P W D L F ABoPts Harlequins ........ 13 11 0 2 320 219 3 47 Saracens........... 13 10 1 2 278 208 2 44 Northampton .... 13 8 0 5 310 204 4 36 Leicester...........13 7 1 5348317 636 London Irish...... 13 6 1 6 306 298 7 33 Exeter...............13 6 0 7242252 731 Sale..................13 6 0 7285312 630 Gloucester ........ 13 5 1 7 275 254 7 29 Worcester ......... 13 5 1 7 175 220 3 25 Bath ................. 13 5 0 8 235 252 4 24 Wasps............... 13 4 0 9 202 286 5 21 Newcastle......... 13 2 1 10 207 361 2 12 THE CHAMPIONSHIP P W D L F ABoPts Bristol............... 17 14 0 3 444 303 8 64 Bedford............. 17 10 1 6 487 387 11 53 London Welsh ... 17 10 2 5 404 313 9 53 Cornish Pirates . 17 9 3 5 474 380 10 52 LeedsCarnegie.1711 1 5357386 349 Rotherham ....... 17 9 1 7 397 315 9 47 Nottingham.......17 8 2 7467375 844 Doncaster ......... 17 8 2 7 358 356 8 44 London Scottish 17 5 0 12 355 426 9 29 Moseley ............ 17 5 1 11 360 487 6 28 Plymouth Albion 17 5 0 12 281 408 3 23 Esher................ 17 1 1 15 233 481 2 8

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WALL OF SILENCE There is still no word on the future of Alan Tait
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 10, 2012
Words:883
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