Friday 24 May 2019

Newcastle: 20 things for rugby supporters to do on Champions' Cup weekend

Former Ireland lock and Tyneside resident Mike McCarthy shares his insider tips with Pól Ó Conghaile in Lineout Magazine

Gateshead Millennium Bridge, with Sage Gateshead in the background. Newcastle.
Gateshead Millennium Bridge, with Sage Gateshead in the background. Newcastle.
Statue of Sir Bobby Robson outside St James' Park
The Forth, Pink Lane, Newcastle.
1 April 2018; Maro Itoje of Saracens following the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Leinster and Saracens at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Mike McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile

Mike McCarthy & Pól Ó Conghaile

Forget those bleak, industrial stereotypes — rugby fans are in for a treat when the Challenge and Champions Cup finals come to a city Lonely Planet has dubbed the “hipster capital of the northeast”.

The essentials

The European Champions Cup Final takes place at St James’ Park in Newcastle on Saturday, May 11.

The Challenge Cup Final kicks off at the same venue on Friday, May 10. Put the two together, and you have the makings of a rollicking rugby weekend (for tickets, see epcrugby.com).

If St James’ Park sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Newcastle is a famous footballing city (check out the statue of Sir Bobby Robson outside the stadium), though it’s been known to roll out the welcome mat for fans of oval-shaped balls, too. Atmosphere is guaranteed.

Both Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly from Dublin to Newcastle — a short hop of about an hour. Expect prices to jump considerably on Cup Final weekend, but you can make savings by flying on less busy days — Thursday and Monday, for example.

For more info, see newcastlegateshead.com.

Set the scene…

Newcastle, Bobby Robson, St James Park2.jpg
Statue of Sir Bobby Robson outside St James' Park

“I’d never been to Newcastle before I played there,” says Mike McCarthy, who played for the Falcons from 2003–2006 before going on to tackle Connacht, Leinster and Ireland.

“I had that preconceived idea of industrial factories and smoke. It couldn’t have been further from the truth — there’s great nightlife, the quayside is being developed, the architecture is surprising, and there are beaches and seaside all close by.”

Set along the River Tyne, with a relatively compact centre, Newcastle is an easy place to navigate — and the stadium is a short walk from all the action. “You don’t get completely lost like you might on a night out in London,” Mike says. “You have everything you need in a smaller space.”

It’s also more affordable than southern city breaks. “I travel regularly to Dublin for work, and the cost of living is a lot cheaper in Newcastle than it would be in Dublin,” Mike adds.

“All told, it’s just a really buzzing and happening city. There’s loads going on — and there’s a good mix of upmarket, posh places and more affordable, casual spots… it’s a bit of a party town.”

Where to eat and drink…

Newcastle, The Forth.jpg
The Forth, Pink Lane, Newcastle.

“Everybody likes to let their hair down in Newcastle,” Mike says. Here’s how to join them...

Stack (stacknewcastle.com) is a perfect punt. “It’s within walking distance of St James’ Park. Downstairs is made from a load of old shipping containers, and you can get all kinds of street food — tapas, fish ’n’ chips, sushi and the like. There are fire heaters, music and drinking, and upstairs there’s another floor with great house music. It’s a really good atmosphere.”

By the River Brew Co. (bytheriverbrew.co) is another destination in itself — with a microbrewery and tap room (with 20 keg lines) beneath the Tyne Bridge. Tour the brewery on Saturday morning, or stop into HWKRMRKT — a street-food market that runs on weekends. It’s got everything from a gin bar (Mildred’s Twisted Ankle) to first-class soakage (chow down at Scream for Pizza or Fowl Play).

“Drinks-wise, you’d probably associate the city with Newcastle Brown Ale in the same way you would Dublin with Guinness,” Mike says. “But personally, I think it tastes like muck. The city is also known for its craft ales, so try a few — the Wylam Brewery (wylambrewery.co.uk) is a good option.”

Other bars on Mike’s hit list include the Shark Club (sharkclub.com), The Forth (theforthnewcastle.co.uk, above), Stein Bier Keller (steinbierkeller.com), The Town Wall Public House & Eatery (thetownwall.com) and the gin palace Pleased to Meet You (ptmy-newcastle.co.uk).

Stashed under the stanchions of Tyne Bridge, The Bridge Tavern (thebridgetavern.com) brews craft ale on site, and a tasty menu ranges from sharing planks of meats, seafood and cheeses to ‘bar bait’ snacks and mains like a stonking beer-battered haddock, chips and mushy peas.

For an old-school boozer, a final option is The Strawberry (thestrawberrypub.co.uk) — set just across the road from St James’ Park in a standalone house reminiscent of Mr Fredricksen’s in Up. It’s a classic footie supporters’ pub, with a name evoking strawberry wine sold by nuns in the 1700s.

For eats, Mike tips Pizza Punks (pizzapunks.co.uk/newcastle); Italian brasserie, bar and club Babucho (babucho.co.uk); The Muddler (themuddlernewcastle.co.uk) for Asian food and cocktails; Japanese restaurant and late bar Aveika (aveika.co.uk), and the Botanist (thebotanist.uk.com).

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1 April 2018; Maro Itoje of Saracens following the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Leinster and Saracens at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Other stops and shopping…

Mike tips the Millennium Bridge, Durham Cathedral and Antony Gormley’s iconic sculpture, ‘Angel of the North’, as must-dos on a trip to NewcastleGateshead.

The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (baltic.art) on Gateshead Quays is another doozy for the downtime between games. It mounts ever-changing exhibitions in a converted flour mill reminiscent of London’s Tate Modern. Upper-storey views over Sage Gateshead, the River Tyne and its bridges are stunning, and there’s a pretty nifty gift shop too.

Shopping is probably Newcastle’s single biggest surprise — boutiques, malls, indie shops and markets are all crammed into a relatively small city centre.

Metrocentre (intu.co.uk/metrocentre) and Eldon Square (intu.co.uk/eldonsquare) are the mega-malls, and Grainger Market is a Newcastle institution. Its nuggets include one of the oldest M&S branches in existence.

Where's Mike McCarthy now?

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Leinster's Mike McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile

Mike McCarthy played rugby for 17 years with Newcastle Falcons, Connacht, Leinster and Ireland. Since finishing his career, he has relocated to Tyneside with his wife.

“She’s a Geordie,” he says simply. “She wanted to move back.”

Since then, they haven’t looked back. Today, Mike works as development manager with the Rugby Players’ Association in England, spending two days a week with both northern clubs — Newcastle Falcons and Sale Sharks. After years playing second row and flanker at provincial and international level, he now helps players to prepare for their post-rugby lives.

“We call it ‘dual careers’,” he explains. “In days gone by, players didn’t think much past the game. But now there’s a realisation that you can’t just focus on the rugby. You have to be continually upskilling, putting yourself in the best possible position for when you retire. So hopefully you leave the field with a degree, work experiences and an idea of what you want to do… and what you don’t.”

This feature originally appeared in Lineout Magazine.

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