Rugby Union: Newcastle survive Ryan's early exit to close on title

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Newcastle 20 Bath 15

CONNOISSEURS of rugby's dark arts are familiar with the sight of Dean Ryan disappearing into a bank of blood-red mist, but it was the fog on the Tyne that claimed Newcastle's captain last night. Ryan lasted just 10 minutes of the latest nerve-shredding test of his side's Premiership credentials before being concussed in a heavy double tackle from Ieuan Evans and Nathan Thomas. Try as he might, he could not rediscover his bearings. As he left the field, his rudderless club-mates feared their title ambitions were going the same way.

Yet they survived the trauma, and deservedly so. Their pack is by no means the quickest thing on 16 legs but it was built by the same firm that constructed the pyramids and it possesses bottomless reserves of heart. They ground down Bath in a tough, unremittingly physical bout of trench warfare and irrespective of Saracens' result against Northampton on Thursday, they can take the title by beating Harlequins this weekend.

Ryan's injury may have been bad news for Newcastle but given that it prolonged a dire opening half by a full five minutes, it was a whole lot worse for the 11,000-odd spectators who braved a cold, wet evening at the Gateshead International Stadium. True, the Falcons claimed two very decent tries; Tony Underwood claimed the first after a punishing burst from Gary Armstrong while Richard Arnold bagged the second from Jonny Wilkinson's stiletto-sharp dart in midfield. But, as a spectacle, the match was whistled into oblivion by Stewart Piercy.

His pedantry knew no bounds, his inconsistency no limits. Both sides were sinned against but Bath, in particular, were left the more flummoxed and frustrated as Piercy repeatedly allowed the Falcons' forwards to kill the ball on the floor. Not surprisingly, the visiting hard men investigated other avenues of redress and landed themselves in the dock, Martin Haag receiving a lengthy reading of the riot act and Nathan Thomas a yellow card.

Sadly, the second half was equally lengthy and every bit as soporific. There was no shortage of commitment - Mark Regan, the out-of-favour England hooker, paid four visits to the blood bin and finished the game looking like an extra from Reservoir Dogs - but Piercy's whistle sonata in four movements, all of them panicky, ensured a static, leaden-paced affair. A greater contrast to Saturday's Saracens-Wasps cup final would be difficult to imagine.

Understandably, Newcastle were seriously jittery. Equally understandably, the West Countrymen were hugely motivated for their role as potential party-poopers. It was the Falcons' unexpected win at the Recreation Ground way back in August that set them on the road to a meaningful title challenge and Bath players tend to have memories of elephantine proportions.

But Bath are not even a shadow of the vintage sides of the Jack Rowell era. Most notably, their threequarter wizardry has evaporated into the ether and it was typical of their malaise that they should have been restricted to five Jon Callard penalties.

Newcastle: Tries: Underwood, Arnold; Conversions: Andrew 2; Penalties: Andrew 2. Bath: Penalties: Callard 5.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, A Tait, J Wilkinson (V Tuigamala, h-t), T Underwood; R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell (G Graham, 56), R Nesdale, P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, G Weir, P Lam, D Ryan (capt; P Walton, 10), R Arnold.

Bath: J Callard; I Evans, J Guscott, P de Glanville (I Balshaw, 87), A Adebayo; M Perry, A Nicol (capt, S Hatley, 87); D Hilton (J Mallett, 68), M Regan (A Long, 85), V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, R Bryan, E Peters, N Thomas.

Referee: S Piercy (Yorkshire).

l Will Greenwood was cleared to join England's summer tour after a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel last night decided to take no further action against the Leicester centre following his red card at Newcastle last Monday when he appeared to aim a headbutt at Falcons' player-coach Rob Andrew.

Race for Premiership

P W D L F A Pts

Newcastle 21 18 0 3 601 367 36

Saracens 21 17 1 3 541 376 35

Remaining fixtures

Thursday: Saracens v Northampton

Sunday: Harlequins v Newcastle