Falcons lose but climb off the bottom
April 15, 2011
Falcons lose but climb off the bottom
Northampton maintained their push for the Aviva Premiership play-off with a 22-15 victory over Newcastle at Kingston Park but the losing bonus point was enough to see the Falcons leapfrog Leeds at the bottom of the table.
A last-gasp try from England winger Chris Ashton broke the Falcons' hearts after a gutsy performance and the boot of inspirational fly-half Jimmy Gopperth had taken the home side to the brink of a priceless draw. The Saints had earlier taken control of the game with a try from fullback Ben Foden and another from winger Bruce Reihana kept Newcastle at bay in the second half before Gopperth levelled the tie with five minutes remaining. But Northampton rallied in the closing moments with the Falcons guilty of failing to close out the game and Saints fly-half Stephen Myler punished them by finding Ashton out wide for the match-winning score.
Newcastle began brightly and Northampton's efforts to quell the hosts led to an early penalty that allowed Gopperth to take the game deep into the Saints 22. The ball was secured at the lineout and Gopperth was wide with a drop goal in the knowledge that a further offside penalty against Northampton lock Courtney Lawes was coming his way. And the Kiwi playmaker made no mistake from the kicking tee to give his side a deserved lead.
Newcastle's pack continued to make a significant impression on their Northampton counterparts and the next strong drive drew yet another penalty against prop Brian Mujati for pulling down the maul. The end result was the same with Gopperth bisecting the posts to double the Falcons' advantage. Gopperth proved to be equally effective with ball in hand a few minutes later with a neat line break to take his side back to within striking distance but this time the penalty went against flanker Will Welch for holding onto the ball.
Saints attempted to raise the tempo with prop Soane Tonga'uiha finding some room to exploit but their first visit to the Falcons' 22 was short lived and they were soon back on the front foot with Lawes doing extremely well to track and tackle Newcastle fullback Tom Catterick.
The Northampton pack scored a minor victory at the next scrum and they maintained that momentum to drive Newcastle back towards their own line where Falcons lock Andrew van der Heijden tackled Tonga'uiha superbly only to see his side concede a penalty. Saints opted for the scrum and their gamble paid off with a No.8 Roger Wilson drawing a couple of tackles before Foden stepped his way through the defensive line to notch the game's first try. Myler's conversion made it a seven-point score and put the visitors ahead for the first time.
And it was another scrum that laid the foundation for Northampton's next raid with Newcastle forced into an offside penalty in their attempts to snuff out the danger. Myler stepped up to slot the kick and extend his side's lead to four points and Gopperth failed with a relatively easy chance a few moments later after Saints centre James Downey had been penalised for not rolling away. Gopperth made amends with another line break as the half drew to a close but was hauled down by Foden before pulling another drop goal attempt wide of the posts.
Newcastle claimed an early penalty following the re-start with Tonga'uiha caught offside after a good drive from the Falcons and Gopperth found his range once again with the kick. Saints attempted to reassert themselves up front but it was a failed interception by Falcons No.8 Ally Hogg that allowed them to turn the screw. They peppered the Falcons' 22 off the resulting lineout and a burst of speed from Foden created space for centre Jon Clarke who put Reihana over in the corner.
A big tackle from Falcons winger Gcobani Bobo then flattened Saints speedster Chris Ashton and tempers continued to simmer but Northampton kept their heads long enough to drive deep into the 22 where a Myler cross-kick found Reihana only for a desperate tackle from winger Alex Tait to deny him a score. The Newcastle scrum survived their next examination but the home side were penalised shortly after for pulling down another ominous drive. Myler kicked to the corner and his pack set about driving over only to be hustled into touch.
Northampton's Phil Dowson stretches the Newcastle defence during their Premiership clash at Kingston Park © Getty Images
Northampton were reduced to 14 men midway through the half with flanker Calum Clark a little unlucky to see yellow for a crunching tackle on Gopperth who responded by taking his side upfield. His pack then produced an impressive drive of their own that drew the latest penalty from Mujati and Gopperth brought his side to within three points from the kicking tee. Saints flanker Phil Dowson was then fortunate to escape sin-binning assault on Gopperth and immediately made way for Tom Wood who packed down for an attacking 5m scrum after the Falcons had taken the ball over their own line to deny a try-hungry Northampton.
Time and time again Saints struggled to find an opening in a committed Falcons defence with scrum-half Lee Dickson eventually forced into a superb touch-finder in the corner but the home side managed to clear their lines. A swinging arm from Gopperth on Dickson afforded Saints a penalty as the game entered the final ten minutes and the visitors opted for the lineout that was claimed by Lawes before he was penalised for a high tackle on opposite number Tim Swinson.
A knock on from Myler then gave Newcastle an attacking scrum in the shadow of the Northampton posts and it got better for the hosts when a dangerous tackle from former Falcon Mark Sorenson gifted Gopperth the chance to level the scores which he duly did. But there was more drama yet to come.
Northampton stripped the home side of the ball following the re-start and a dart from Ashton took his side close to a try before Wilson earned a couple of hard yards. The ball was swiftly recycled and a superb pass from Myler found Ashton unmarked and he strolled over for the match-winning score. Myler nailed an excellent conversion to restore a seven-point lead and as a result the Falcons had to settle for what could be an equally valuable losing bonus point.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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