Paddy Lennon reports from Kingston Park, Newcastle.
On the law of averages it had to happen! For the first time in six visits to the capital of the North East London Irish was greeted with bright sunshine and a gentle breeze! Perfect conditions for rugby. As dramatic a contrast as possible from the Exiles’ last visit just eight weeks ago when snow, wind and ice combined to ruin any chance of progress in the Powergen Cup which Sunday’s hosts went on to win.
While the weather may have been in benevolent mood, the home team was not in a humour to give anything away as they wanted to celebrate their cup victory with another in their final home match of the season.
Irish got off to an encouraging start when Barry Everitt kicked his first penalty of the match in the second minute. However, even at this early stage, the signs were ominous for the visitors. Irish were struggling to contain the Falcons, especially on the right wing where Tom May’s strength and pace always threatened. As the game developed, Everitt’s opposite number, Dave Walder who missed a kickable penalty in the sixth minute, began to influence proceedings at out half.
As it happened Newcastle’s opening try came on the opposite wing through the Falcons’ new star, schoolboy Matthew Tait. The 18 year old winger made an impressive Premiership debut showing pace, intelligence and a neat side-step in rounding Justin Bishop for his and Falcon’s opening try in the 10th minute. Walder converted to give his side a 7-3 lead.
Six minutes later the home side was to stretch its lead through another burst down the right. This time the initiator was second row, Stuart Grimes who powered through the Irish defence, before sending Warren Britz over for a try in the corner. Walder missed the conversion so the score remaind 12-3.
As the game entered its second quarter Newcastle were in the ascendant, playing with confidence and adventure. The ball was being spread wide both left and right – a sure sign that the home side felt they had nothing to lose. They were almost caught out in the 25th minute when Nick Kennedy intercepted a pass after a lineout and, showing pace that belied his height, raced for the left corner. He was tackled into touch just five metres short of the try line.
Irish were able to reduce the deficit two minutes later when a rare period of sustained pressure resulted in a penalty for killing the ball. Everitt had no trouble with the 30 metre kick in front of the posts.
As the game moved towards the interval, Irish were forced to defend constantly as the strong Falcons’ backs sought to probe for any weaknesses. Mark Mayerhofler and Jamie Noon aided by Grimes, Hamilton and Britz probed for a third try, but were denied by brave tackles from Irish back row and centres Nils Mordt and Geoff Appleford. The latter paid the price in the 39th minute when he had to leave the field temporarily with a blood injury.
The second half started as the first had ended with the home side seeking the crucial score that would see Irish off. A sixth minute penalty miss by Walder was disappointing for the vocal home supporters.
Crucially, Irish began to make a series of replacements that were to stabilise their efforts. Naka Drotske came on for Adrian Flavin and Neal Hatley took over from Doug Wheatley. The platform provided by the Irish scrum improved and options began to open. Barry Everitt was unlucky in the 55th minute when, with the try line beckoning, he passed as he thought to a team mate, only for Warren Britz to take the pass and launch a counter-attack. That resulted in Irish conceding a penalty which Walder kicked successfully to extend the home side’s lead to 15-6.
Shortly afterwards Mark Mapletoft replaced Everitt and Declan Danaher took over from Paul Gustard as Irish sought to introduce fresh pace into the game. Irish began to exercise sustained pressure for the first time in the game. In the 59th minute Mapletoft kicked a penalty to touch but Newcastle defended the resulting lineout well and cleared. However, they were to lose Britz to the sin-bin in the 60th minute for repeatedly slowing the releae of the ball at the breakdown.
Two minutes later a fine passing move by Irish going left across the pitch saw Mapletoft send Bishop down the left at speed. He was to run out of space just metres short of the try line. Paul Sackey forced his way over the try line in the 65th minute but the referee judged that he had made a double movement in touching down so there was no score.
The pace of the game and the ferocity of the tackling took its toll on players on both sides. Newcastle lost their captain, Hugh Vyvyan to a leg injury. Irish maintained the pressure and were rewarded in the 76th minute when Neal Hatley finished off a move created by the pack by touching down for his first try of the season behind the posts. Mapletoft converted to reduce the home side’s lead to two points.
The flow of the game continued to be disrupted by injuries ensuring that a long period of injury time was in prospect. Irish continued to have the best of the exchanges as the 80th minute passed. Newcastle were forced to defend in their half. In the 84th minute Britz was penalised for handling the ball on the ground. Mapletoft sent the ball straight between the posts from 25 meters out to give Irish a one point lead.
The Falcons responded to this crucial score by launching a series of attacks, however the Irish defence held. Nick Kennedy stole a vital lineout ball in the 85th minute that enabled the Exiles to drive into the Newcastle half as the game moved ever deeper into injury time. The home side knew that they had to keep the ball alive. In the 91st minute however, a last gasp, long range drop goal attempt by Walder drifted comfortably left of the posts and referee Barnes brought the match to an end.
There were contrasting views from the coaches after the match. For London Irish, Gary Gold described his side’s second half performance as “massively courageous. We desperately need to win to have any chance of making the play-offs. Job done!” Rob Andrew admitted with a rueful smile “If you don’t shake London Irish off when you can, they will cling on and come back and sting you and that’s what happened to us today!”
Scorers: Newcastle Falcons: Tries: Tait (10), Btitz (16). Conversion: Walder. Penalty goals: Walder (56). London Irish: Try: Hatley (76). Conversion: Mapletoft. Penalty goals: Everitt 2 (2, 27), Mapletoft (84).
Scoring sequence (Newcastle first): 0-3, 7-3, 12-3, 12-6 (half-time) 15-6, 15-13, 15-16.
Referee: W Barnes (RFU)