Rugby Union: Falcons find the passion

Gloucester 27 Newcastle 29
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SO THIS is what is meant by the term "down to the wire". With two points separating the sides and the final whistle just a blast away, Mark Mapletoft launched a drop goal soaring towards the Newcastle posts. The ball, floating on the gusting wind, sailed just wide and Newcastle had survived. On the basis that titles are won and lost as much on the bad days as they are on the good, Newcastle will be worthy champions when, as surely they must be, they are crowned at the season's end.

For long periods of this compelling match the side who, earlier in the season, had appeared impregnable to the wiles of more adventurous opponents, were at sixes and sevens in the face of Gloucester's remorseless attacks. In the end Newcastle had to fall back on the strength of their tackling, of which there was no better example than Jim Naylor's withering lunge on Philippe Saint-Andre in the dying moments, and some good old-fashioned luck.

That they also relied heavily on some gamesmanship and skulduggery was not so much to their credit, although in the circumstances they will no doubt seek to justify their actions. In this they were aided by the referee and touch judges, for whom it was not the best of days.

Gloucester will also rue the two occasions they allowed Rob Andrew a free passage to their line. Twice the Newcastle fly-half scored and twice Mapletoft, who otherwise had an excellent match, was to blame, although Gloucester's cover defence did little to support him. Andrew finished the match with 19 points from two tries, three conversions and a penalty, with Mapletoft just a couple of points behind with five penalties and a conversion.

There was, as always seems to be the case at Kingsholm, a large amount of controversy and one felt a certain measure of sympathy with the crowd's outrage, first when Newcastle were awarded a penalty try after Gloucester had painstakingly built up a 10-point lead. Newcastle launched a ferocious attack 10 metres from the Gloucester line; at the first scrummage the front rows went down and John Pearson awarded a penalty against Gloucester. At the second scrummage Newcastle went for the push-over but Gloucester appeared to be holding firm when Pearson, egged on by Andrew, ran round to the tight-head side, blew his whistle and signalled a penalty try. It seemed a harsh decision, but Newcastle were back in the match and by half-time they were ahead, Andrew taking advantage of Gloucester's poor defensive alignment to score a simple try in injury time.

It was scant reward for Gloucester's first-half effort in which they had looked the sharper, and in which the forwards had more than matched Newcastle's renowned muscle and vigour in the tight. Garath Archer, one of the players of the season, found himself under intense pressure at the line-out from Dave Sims and, when he escaped Sims' clutches, from Rob Fidler. It was no surprise then that Gloucester, having gone behind to Andrew's penalty in the fourth minute, should have taken such firm control for the next half-hour. A series of lightning rucks moving crisply from left to right set up a try for Saint-Andre and with Mapletoft kicking the conversion and two penalties Gloucester seemed well in control as half-time approached. But those two Newcastle tries in the space of less than 10 minutes proved decisive.

Gloucester's refusal to be dispirited spoke volumes for their resolve. Steve Ojomoh, quiet in the first half, began to assert himself in the second with powerful drives into the thicket of the Newcastle forwards. In addition to this, Mapletoft's speed and tactical awareness were creating space around him for his threequarters. Had Scott Benton been on song with his passing then Gloucester might well have made more of their excellent possession. Unfortunately, the scrum-half's service was too often erratic and several good chances were lost along with Gloucester's momentum.

Mapletoft kicked his third penalty and Ojomoh, with a surging run over Alan Tait, scored in the corner. Andrew's second try followed but Mapletoft's fourth penalty levelled the scores at 24-24 with just five minutes to go. Following the restart, Benton's clearing kick was charged down by Dean Ryan in a suspiciously offside position and Peter Walton profited for Newcastle's fourth try.

The Gloucester support got themselves into a real lather over this, and again when Paul van Zandvliet blatantly tripped Mapletoft as he was following up his chip over the Newcastle line. Although it provoked outrage on the touchlines, to the neutral observer it merely heightened the enjoyment of what was a wonderfully competitive match.

Gloucester: C Catling; B Johnson, T Fanolua, R Tombs, P Saint-Andre; M Mapletoft, S Benton; T Windo (capt), C Fortey (Greening, 75), P Vickery, R Fidler, D Sims, S Ojomoh, S Devereux, N Carter.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, A Tait, M Shaw; R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P van Zandvliet, G Archer, D Weir, P Lam, D Ryan (capt), P Walton,

Referee: J Pearson (Durham).