By Richard Grainger
NEWCASTLE HAVE one foot back in the Aviva Premiership following their 9-18 win over Bedford in the first leg of the Championship final at Goldington Road on Thursday night.
But Falcons’ head coach Dean Richards was quick to point out that the job was far from done: “We said that we would come up here and put in a workmanlike performance, and that is exactly what we did,” Richards told the Falcons’ website.
Newcastle take this handy lead into the return leg at Kingston Park on Wednesday (kick-off 7.45pm) but Richards knows that Bedford’s style of attacking rugby could easily annul the hosts’ advantage, should the Falcons take their eyes off the ball.
But no matter what sports psychologists may say, pushing at a locked door is less motivational than pushing at a door that is half open. Anything less than losing to the Blues by 10 points will take the Falcons straight back to the top flight at the first attempt. Anything more than a win by nine points will take Bedford precisely nowhere — other than a trip to the engraves with their Championship silverware.
In a try-less game on Thursday, not helped by a sharp downpour immediately before kick-off, Leinster-bound Jimmy Gopperth kicked six penalties, capitalising on the dominance of the Falcons’ forwards.
Myles Dorrian replied for the Blues with two successful shots at goal, before replacement Jake Sharp added a third and saw his second attempt, which would have reduced the Falcons’ lead to six points, fade wide in the 80th minute.
However, Bedford director of rugby Mike Rayer felt that his side should have been awarded a penalty try when winger James Stephenson looked to have been shoved off the ball while chasing a Ben Ransom kick ahead.
Rayer added that handling errors and tactical mistakes had let his side down but had nothing but admiration for the character shown by his players.
A LIFELINE FOR THE WELSH?
Bedford, whose Goldington Road ground would not meet the Premiership’s Minimum Standards Criteria, have already made it clear that they would not be seeking promotion should they win the final.
In a fascinating subplot, London Welsh, who finished 10 points behind Worcester at the foot of the Premiership, could be thrown a lifeline should Newcastle fail to come out on top following Wednesday’s second leg.
The Exiles have yet to decide whether to revert to the Old Deer Park or look for an alternative home in Oxford should they return to life in the Championship. They are unlikely to continue to use the Kassam Stadium, as second tier rugby would generate insufficient income to service the rent.
With the loss of their major benefactor and several key players, the coming season will present the Welsh with difficult challenges, although head coach Lyn Jones remains committed to the Exiles’ cause.
However, a senior source at the club who requested not to be named, confirmed that the feeling amongst most of the membership is that relegation will be welcomed if it means the return of rugby to Richmond.
FALCONS LOSE TO LEINSTER’S SECOND TEAM
Should they require one, the British & Irish Cup final will serve as a reminder to Newcastle to keep their feet firmly on the ground if Wednesday’s second leg returns them to the top level of English rugby.
While their first-choice team made light work of Stade Francais in the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup at the RDS, Leinster’s second string defeated Newcastle 17-18 at Kingston Park.
Despite trailing 10-0 after as many minutes, Leinster’s young side, aided by poor Newcastle discipline resulting in two yellow cards, crawled their way back to level the score after 80 minutes, moving the clash into extra time.
A Fionn Carr try put the visitors ahead for the first time in the 92nd minute, before Newcastle’s Zach Kibirige finished off a fine move and Joel Hodgson converted.
It was ironic that Newcastle, who had dominated the set pieces and had out-muscled the visitors throughout, should concede a scrum penalty in the 99th minute to allow Noel Reid to return the trophy to the Emerald Isle.