Rugby Union: Andrew steadies lax Newcastle

Newcastle 23 Sale 18
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The Independent Online
WITH GROUND to make up on Saracens, Newcastle almost had terra firma pulled from under their feet by Sale, who refused to accept the inevitability of the fate reserved for everyone else travelling to Kingston Park this season. On a filthy night, Sale almost ended Newcastle's unbeaten record in the Allied Dunbar Premiership One, despite being 17-0 adrift after only 21 minutes.

Having pulled themselves together before half-time, when a bombing looked in prospect, Sale pulled back to 20-18 and, with the final quarter remaining and the driving rain intensifying, Newcastle had to call all hands to the pumps. As they do in times of crisis, Newcastle turned to their trusty midshipman, Rob Andrew, who steered them off the rocks with a last-minute penalty goal. So with two games in hand over Saracens - who provide the opposition when Newcastle are next at home, in a fortnight's time - the Tyneside club are within two points of the leaders.

Sale's preparation had been interrupted by the unexpected news yesterday the impending departure of their All Black outside-half, Simon Mannix who, although he had only been with the club for 17 months, was a major influence. Mannix, 26, is seen as the focus of dressing-room unrest and has been placed on the transfer list. This is news which may well interest Saracens, who are looking for a outside-half to replace Michael Lynagh, the Australian who retires at the end of the season.

Even with Mannix, it is unlikely that Sale would have found a way of arresting Newcastle's early momentum. It did not help, though, that a loose pass by his replacement, Shane Howarth, was easily intercepted by Tony Underwood, who scuttled 60 metres for Newcastle's third try.

Inexplicably, Newcastle lost concentration. Garath Archer was shown the yellow card after a touchline brawl by which time Tom Beim and Dave Erskine had scored tries. Howarth converted the latter and then struck a beauty of a penalty from 35 metres - awarded as a consequence of the Archer fracas - and Sale were up to 17-15 at the break.

As the conditions worsened, so did Newcastle's ball retention and the variety of their tactics. Not once did Newcastle attempt a rolling maul and never was there a steepling kick to Sale's posts. But they began to play more of the game in Sale's half.

However, as attack after attack broke down, it became clear how thankful Newcastle were for their first-half tries scored by Graham Childs and Andrew. With the conversion of his own try, Andrew kicked a penalty to open the second-half scoring. But when Howarth kicked his second penalty to narrow the gap to just two points, Newcastle were in danger of being submerged until Andrew answered their call.

Newcastle: Tries Childs, Andrew, Underwood; Conversion Andrew; Penalties Andrew 2. Sale: Tries Beim, Erskine; Conversion Howarth; Penalties Howarth 2.

Newcastle: S Legg; T Underwood, V Tuigamala, M Shaw, G Childs (T Simpson, 9); R Andrew, C Simpson-Daniel (G Armstrong, 59); N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, R Metcalfe, P Lam, R Arnold, D Ryan (capt).

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); M Moore, J Baxendell, C Yates, T Beim; S Howarth, R Smith; P Winstanley, G Dawe, M Drive (D Bell, 62), D Baldwin (P Anglesea, 63), S Raiwalui, D Erskine, D O'Grady, D O'Cuinneagain.

Referee: C Rees (Twickenham).