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Be inspired every day with Living North

Meet Former Newcastle Falcons Captain and Current Coach, Mark Wilson

man wearing a blue top holding a rugby ball
February 2023
Reading time 5 Minutes

Becoming successful in any walk of life demands hard work, a sprinkling of luck and an ability to seize your chance. We met former rugby union player Mark Wilson who did just that, and is trying it again as part of the coaching team at Newcastle Falcons

I've just stopped watching this year's Sport's Personality of the Year (SPOTY) and, suitably inspired, thought I'd write about someone I met quite recently, Mark Wilson, ex-Newcastle Falcons captain who is now coaching his old team and who remains highly regarded as an ex player for both club and country.

To be fair I was going to give SPOTY a miss this year but boy (or should that be girl?) I’m glad I didn’t. To understand the effort and stories behind England’s Lionesses and their various journeys made me proud to be a sports fan, and then we heard mention of someone I was privileged to have met, Doddie Weir, who has so recently succumbed to that most horrible condition, Motor Neurone Disease. On the stage receiving an award was another rugby playing legend, league on this occasion, Rob Burrows, who has the same condition. Alongside Rob were some of Doddie’s family and Rob’s own family too, including his wife and young children. Beside him was one Kevin Sinfield. What a man, what a friend for Rob to have and what a champion of both codes of rugby. He spoke with dignity about his friend, the game he loves (he excelled at rugby league and is now coaching as part of England’s recently re-jigged rugby union team). Sinfield alone through some ridiculously tough long-distance runs has raised over £7 million for MND, for which the BBC created a special award, well played them. 

The programme shone a light on many sports, but in all cases the journey of each and every one of the players, coaches and their numerous supporters was truly uplifting. So it was that Mark Wilson came to mind.

Mark, like so many others, has met numerous challenges to get to the top. So many hills to climb, but all the while supporters, teammates, friends, family and coaches have kept him going, although none of it would have been possible without his own grit and determination. This is a brief look at just a part of his sporting life to date and I hope this tale might inspire two things: firstly, if you can, try and support the start (or any part) of the journey of sports people you know. Remember even the greats have their bad days and setbacks and they can’t be winners all of the time. Secondly, I hope it inspires you to get along to watch rugby, Kingston Park home of the Newcastle Falcons is the most obvious choice in these parts, but if not watching at the professional level go along to one of the many welcoming clubhouses found across the North East. As Kevin Sinfield explained so well, there’s a rare warmth between players and spectators of this game under both codes (league and union) and you’ll always be made very welcome.

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Roll on the clock from those early days playing in Cumbria, the rain whipping across the pitch in a way that only the Cumbrian Fells can muster, to 2019 and the Rugby World Cup in Japan where Mark was the centre of attention at the Yokohama International Stadium when England played New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks for a place in the World Cup Final… it simply doesn’t get any bigger. England won that match in one of their finest ever performances. 

On the day I meet Mark, the clubhouse at Kingston Park is quiet. The boards behind us list previous internationals who have played for the club, and it’s an impressive list. Each one of those players will have their own journey to recount, but for youngsters trying to make it in sport Mark’s life is as much insightful as it is inspirational. 'As a kid I loved my football,' he explains. ‘I wanted to be a professional player and was always pretty competitive and I was quite fast as a child. At secondary school one of my teachers was rugby mad and he took me under his wing. I was quite a big lad and mixed it with older boys. I really enjoyed the physical part, trying to be brave and putting my body on the line.’ 

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At school, Mark, like so many before him, was supported by family and he remembers with a smile how he would be taken across the county and beyond listening to the tunes of Fleetwood Mac and the Bee Gees. It’s a familiar tale for so many, but it’s how to take it to the next level that counts. ‘By the age of 15 to 16 I was fully committed to my training but I still didn’t think I was that good. I had that out-of-my-depth feeling and wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on.’

Once again the pattern will be familiar to many as confidence wavers, but if you put your head down and get on the breaks can come… and they did. ‘I started getting England under 18 games,’ he continues, ‘and won Man of the Match against Holland so I started to think I was okay at rugby.’

At one stage Mark was playing for three teams: Northumbria University, back home for Kendal and for the Falcons Academy. ‘I was living life to the full and taking my rugby very seriously. Alan Tait [former British Lion and Falcons player] encouraged me, explaining that I was closer to the first team than I thought and as I came into proper training with the club I began to leave my academic studies to one side, missing seminars and all sorts.'

‘The twin factors of hard work and dedication are often the difference between those who get to the top and those who don’t, and Mark wasn’t short of either’

One thing clearly had to give, and in 2010 Mark signed for the Falcons. As he tells his story you can almost sense the hours spent trying to make it, whether as a teenager playing for Blaydon, or the journeys in his Fiat Punto (the thought of this huge man in one of those makes me smile) driving from Cumbria to Tyneside, up at 5am to get across for 7.30am. But that’s what was needed, that’s what so often is needed when trying to make it as a professional sports player, or to be a success in any walk of life come to think of it. 

Getting to the top however required an awful lot more, and it’s a credit to Mark as well as those around him that he progressed. ‘That first year at the Falcons was a really steep learning curve. I started as fifth or sixth choice, but towards the end of the season they backed me.’ With the relegation of the Falcons, and despite various comings and goings on and off the pitch, the team battled back and all the while his game continued to develop. Supported by all around him (John Wells gets a particular shout out) his game improved and with Dean Richards now at the helm the future looked good. ‘It was a great part of my career. I trained the house down. We had a great group of players and I was in good shape,’ Mark recalls. 

The twin factors of hard work and dedication are often the difference between those who get to the top and those who don’t, and Mark wasn't short of either. Despite having played for England Students and getting to play in a non-cap game against the Barbarians, full honours had thus far eluded him. So began a summer of content with his nearest and dearest Amy. It was a happy time but things were about to change. 'I had missed a call from Dean and a couple of numbers I didn’t recognise’ he explains. ‘One of the numbers was Charlotte Gibbons and it gets the hairs on the back of my neck going just thinking about it.’ He smiles at the happy memory with a sense of pride. You simply cannot help but admire this man as he reminisces about the time he was invited to tour with his country. He’s emotional as he talks about the build up, his fellow players’ reactions and then going  from training camp to touring in the summer of 2017, where in Argentina he received his first cap for England. His Test debut ended well in the heat of San Juan, winning narrowly, 32–35.

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In sport, as well as a propensity for hard work you always need a bit of luck to harness your labours but the key is when and how you take that chance. In rugby, perhaps more than most sports, injuries give opportunities and with Billy Vunipola injured Mark took his chance, becoming a regular in the England team by the end of 2018. But, as he explains, it wasn't easy. ‘It's way more challenging than people might think and I got pretty anxious about my form.’

Put a different way, I suppose confidence is key. When the opportunity for his home debut at Twickenham arose, it was against South Africa, one of the most physical and capable teams in world rugby. Against the odds England beat the Springboks 12–11 with Mark claiming the Man of the Match award. That autumn he went on to play in all four of England’s autumn internationals and played every minute of each game, culminating in the accolade of the International Player of the series. His summary of his play and performance is enlightening. ‘When you're in camp it's got to be all about the team, there's no room for egos.’

As the seasons went on the Falcons went from one of their best seasons (top four) to one of their worst when they were relegated, during which time Mark had a brief sabbatical at Sale, but for rugby players all eyes were on the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Wilson celebrated his 30th birthday with a win against the USA and England were finding form. They qualified through their group and beat Australia in the quarter final, and went on to face the All Blacks. Mark had missed selection for the Australia fixture but as it was explained to him: ‘You're a good team man and you're in the squad’. In his own words: ‘I had just hung on in there and given myself a chance of selection.’ The game itself was one of the finest performances England have ever produced, not just in coach Eddie Jones’s era but ever, and they won against the three-time world champions New Zealand 19–7. This was a night for the ages in Yokohama, and England and Wilson were set for the final. Sadly that day, as Mark succinctly says, ‘We never fired a shot’.

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After the World Cup Mark started for England against Wales during the Six Nations of 2020, which ended up with England winning the Championship. His final international appearance was against Ireland in the 2021 Six Nations Championship. While contributing to the Falcons on and off the pitch Mark was finding his own playing frustrating, and an ongoing knee problem contributed to his decision to retire. ‘I could have played on but it would have got worse,’ he explains. ‘I was frustrated and hoped that in time I could influence the club better off the field. I genuinely love the club so much and I want us to do so well.’

If I could have bottled that emotion there and then and sprinkled it on all rugby enthusiasts in the North East there would never be an empty seat at Kingston Park.

Returning as a coach the work has begun in earnest as he embarks on the next leg of his career, and while the Falcons have had a tough season, they've produced some excellent results too. ‘I wanted to start afresh and to help make an environment where the lads enjoy coming to work,’ Mark says. As a tireless trainer and heroic defender he can lead by example too, and in time the dream of a top four position hopefully can once again be a reality. 

Today the Rugby Premiership has had a host of problems post-Covid with two clubs going out of business (Wasps and Worcester). It’s not an easy time, but as Kevin Sinfield explained in his SPOTY speech, it's a wonderful sport to be involved with at any level.  Mark's ascent to Test Match Rugby with England came following his progression through the Falcons academy from the age of 14. He followed his dream and grafted at Kendal, Northumbria and Blaydon before playing for England. No matter how talented you are there is no getting away from hard work, but you need to enjoy the adventure too. Mark Wilson is a first-class example of a man who gives his all and that frankly has led to his success. I wish him well as a coach, family man and devoted Newcastle Falcon. From the fells of Cumbria to the imperious Mount Fuji he has witnessed so much but perhaps his best days at the Falcons are yet to come… that is the spirit of sport and that is always the dream.

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