Rugby Union: European dream ends for Falcons

Saracens 40 Newcastle Falcons 26
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The Independent Online
IT WAS never a realistic runner and Newcastle knew it. Saracens have seldom burned at fever pitch over the last eight and a half months - after last season's heroics, no one really expected them to - but they do not lose many matches at Vicarage Road and lose even fewer by 30 clear points. Rob Andrew's battle-weary crew needed a sporting miracle yesterday evening and this is not the age of miracles. Bath, not Newcastle, will reap the rich rewards of European Cup qualification next term.

The North-eastern cause was hardly helped by the fact that Saracens "owed" the visitors from last year, when the two were nip and tuck for the Allied Dunbar title. No favours were anticipated and none was on offer. Newcastle, led by Doddie Weir in the absence of Gary Armstrong, may have semi-hoped that Sarries might coast the final Premiership match of a long campaign, but they were rudely awakened by the home side's enthusiastic contribution to some unpleasant argy-bargy midway through the opening half.

If it was an anxious night for the Geordies, it was a distinctly emotional one for Saracens. No fewer than four of their starting line-up - Gavin Johnson, Brendon Daniel, Alain Penaud and Craig Yandell - were making their final appearances for the club and another departee, Paddy Johns, was looking on from the bench. Johnson and Penaud looked particularly keen to leave with a bang rather than a whimper; the former landed three penalties and a pair of conversions in the first 40 minutes, while his French colleague hit the button with a pearl of a drop goal from a hard- won position to the right of the posts.

But by far the biggest problem for the visitors was the fragility of their fringe defence. Both Kyran Bracken, in complete control at scrum- half, and George Chuter, who rarely if ever takes a turn under the spotlight, found a route to the Newcastle line from identical positions on the 22 and their tries effectively slammed the European door in the Falcons' faces. Not even a 16-point first-half haul from Jonny Wilkinson - a smart try, a conversion and three perfectly struck penalties - could revive the fast fading dream.

That dream disappeared completely 19 minutes after the restart, when Saracens scored a third try to send them away over the horizon. It was the best of the game by a distance: a magisterial break from deep by Johnson, a fierce follow-up from Danny Grewcock, a visionary cut-out pass from Penaud and a simple finish in the right corner from Ryan Constable. Johnson converted to give his side a 14-point advantage at 33-19 and that gap made a late exchange of seven-pointers between Tony Diprose and Martin Shaw entirely academic.

Saracens: Tries Bracken, Chuter, Constable, Diprose; Conversions Johnson 4; Penalties Johnson 3; Drop goal Penaud. Newcastle: Tries Wilkinson, Shaw; Conversions Wilkinson 2; Penalties Wilkinson 4.

Saracens: G Johnson; R Constable, J Thomson, K Sorrell, B Daniel; A Penaud, K Bracken; R Grau, G Chuter, B Reidy (D Flatman, 43), C Yandell (P Johns, 53), D Grewcock, P Ogilvie (F Pienaar, 53), A Diprose (capt), R Hill.

Newcastle Falcons: S Legg (P Massey, h-t); J Naylor, M Shaw, T May, T Underwood; J Wilkinson, H Charlton (A Chilten, 50); G Graham, R Nesdale (R Horton, h-t), M Hurter (I Peel, 60), G Archer, G Weir (capt), P Walton, R Beattie (H Vyvyan, 32), R Arnold.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).

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