Rugby Union: Newcastle feel the bite of the underdog

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The Independent Online
Worcester 0

Newcastle 10

The overworked volunteers behind the Worcester club house bar served up precisely 5,000 pints in celebration of their side's startling Tetley's Bitter Cup victory over Bristol a little under a fortnight ago, and for long periods yesterday the muscular Premiership title contenders from Newcastle played as though they had been responsible for consuming 4,999 of them. The Geordies' no-nonsense, low error style may have propelled them to the top of the domestic heap, but Worcester huffed, puffed and harried them into any number of mistakes before bowing out of the tournament.

It was shortly before Christmas that Cliff Brittle, the Rugby Football Union chairman, caused his now customary degree of uproar by appearing to suggest that ambitious non-Premiership outfits like Worcester might do better to forget about life in the professional fast lane and re-embrace amateurism instead. Brittle has since "clarified" his ideas to Cecil Duckworth, the millionaire benefactor whose hard cash has financed Worcester's grand designs.

It was a good move on the chairman's part for, had he not done so, his coiffeured features would have been covered in egg yolk this morning. Newcastle were pushed every inch of the way by the Third Division underdogs, despite Richard Metcalfe's definitive line-out performance and contributions from Dean Ryan at No 8 and Jim Naylor on the right wing.

Every time they sent Va'aiga Tuigamala, Pat Lam and the rest of the heavy artillery upfield, Worcester manned the barricades in sufficient numbers to halt the machinery in its tracks. But there was more to Worcester than a sheet iron defence; as befitted a side moulded and guided by Les Cusworth, the former England coach, they weaved their own imaginative patterns in midfield and kicked intelligently into space whenever they ran out of passing options. Richard Le Bas, their outside half, was every bit as adventurous with ball in hand as he was secure in the tackle and with Nigel Richardson offering shrewd support from the open-side flank and Paul Holford looking sharp on the right wing, Newcastle were frequently forced to dig a few trenches of their own.

Had Tim Smith taken the odd penalty chance that camehis way, had the otherwise excellent Duncan Hughes not fluffed a heaven-sent opportunity to pin the visitors on their own line during a Worcester purple patch shortly before half time, the club house might well have run dry once again.

"With a bit more composure, a little more grey matter up top, we might have turned them offer," said Cusworth afterwards. As it was, Ryan claimed the only try of the match as early as the 13th minute, forcing his way over near the posts after vigorous rumbles from Metcalfe, Nick Popplewell and Paul Van Zandvliet. Rob Andrew converted before adding a 67th minute penalty to complete the scoring and it was a sure sign of Newcastle's discomfort that after more than an hour of fruitless tap-and-go activity, they happily fell back on the failsafe right boot of their Director of Rugby.

"Thanks a million for your support," bellowed the public address announcement as the 5,000 crowd headed for the nearest watering hole to celebrate a clear moral victory. "Don't forget next week's league game with Harrogate." Most of them probably will forget it, but things are very definitely happening down Worcester way. As Ryan was quick to acknowledge: "They have what it takes to evolve into a Premiership side."

Newcastle: Try: Ryan; Conversion: Andrew; Penalty: Andrew.

Worcester: T Smith; P Holford, D Hughes, R Tomlinson, S Morris (N Baxter, 63); R Le Bas, S Powell (B Fenley, 63); M Linnett, D Ball, M Crane (P Mitchell, 75), P Miles (C Raymond, 58), S Lloyd, G Clark (capt), J Jenner (R Hilton-Jones, 58), N Richardson.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, M Shaw (T Underwood, 65), G Childs, V Tuigamala; R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P Van Zandvliet, R Metcalfe, G Archer, P Lam, D Ryan (capt), R Arnold (P Walton, 44).

Referee: N Cousins (London)