By Richard Grainger

NEWCASTLE HAVE qualified for the knock-out stages of the Championship; not that this was ever in much doubt. And, with five rounds remaining, even if they do not score another point — which is unlikely— they cannot be ousted from pole position.

But, as head coach Dean Richards acknowledged after the Falcons survived a spirited second half fightback by Rotherham, “There are potential banana skins in the league.”

Newcastle scorched to a 0-28 lead at Clifton Lane on Saturday before the Titans decided to make a game of it, outscoring the visitors 10-6 in the second half.

When Newcastle picked up the bonus-point with a penalty try in the 31st minute it had looked ominous for Rotherham. However, tries from Mike Doneghan, Charlie Mulchrone and Dan Sanderson either side of the interval turned one-way traffic into an entertaining contest. And if the normally metronomic Gerry Law had collected eight kickable points on offer with the boot, it would have been closer than the 22-34 final scoreline.

“I thought Rotherham performed well,” Richards told the Falcons’ website, “and we knew beforehand it was going to be a hard game.”

This win followed on the heels of Newcastle’s clinical dismemberment of an injury-weakened Cornish Pirates side the previous Saturday.

In the re-arranged fixture at Kingston Park, the Falcons’ eight try 50-3 victory over the Cornishmen was their largest aggregate win to date in the Championship.

Bristol’s win over second-placed Bedford at Goldington Road on Saturday will pencil in the West Country side as one of those potential banana skins that the Falcons will have to look out for come the play-offs.

Andy Robinson, who took over as Bristol’s director of rugby on March 1st, saw his new charges notch their fifth win on the bounce.

Bristol face Nottingham, one place above them, on Friday evening. “We’re improving week on week,” Bristol head coach Liam Middleton told the club website. “Nottingham is a huge challenge and we know that we have to prove ourselves against them.”

An improving Bristol could well trouble the Falcons, and should the West Country team finish in fourth place after stage one, this would serve up a mouth-watering semi-final clash between the two.

Middleton believed that Bristol’s defence, which prevented the home side crossing the whitewash, turned the game their way. Tries for Luke Eves and Ryan Edwards, and two penalties and a conversion from Adrian Jarvis were enough to take the points, as the Blues only had two James Pritchard penalties to show for their efforts.

Jersey outscored London Scottish by five tries to four at the Athletic Ground on Saturday, but still had to be content with a losing bonus point.

The Exiles made it five wins in a row and led 14-12 at the break. James Love was prolific with the boot, contributing five penalties and three conversions.

Jersey coach Ben Harvey, whose side finally succumbed 41-33, blamed the first half lack of discipline and a couple of poor refereeing decisions for his side’s defeat.

However, Jersey are still two points off the relegation trap door, but were relieved to see fellow strugglers Moseley beat bottom-placed Doncaster 23-9 at Billesley Common on Saturday.

Head coach Kevin Maggs was happy with his side’s performance, which included tries from Ryan Glynn and Buster Lawrence at either end of the match. However, he was quick to point out that they were by no means out of the woods yet.

And things are starting to look bleak for Doncaster. Jersey have a game in hand, and their ability to score tries means that they should continue to pick up invaluable bonus points.

The Cornish Pirates miserable away record didn’t get any better on Sunday when they went down 37-25 to Leeds who scored three tries through David Doherty, Matt Smith and Lee Imiolek.

This leaves Carnegie a point behind Bristol, and despite their inconsistency this season, they still entertain realistic hopes of making the play-offs.

The last two weeks have not helped the injury-hampered Pirates, although they are not out of the running yet in sixth place, still only five points behind Bristol.

And finally Nottingham are well placed to make the second stage following Sunday’s bonus-point win over Plymouth at Meadow Lane. Their 30-22 win over the Devonians consolidates third place, just a point behind Bedford.

All this action leaves the Championship table looking like this: looking like this…

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