Rugby Union: Newcastle triumph with passion

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The Independent Online
A GOOD big 'un will always beat a good little 'un, a steamroller will generally make mincemeat of a racing bike and a suit of armour will inevitably outlast a multi-coloured tutu, especially one incorporating pastel shades of magenta and French grey. At no point this season have Newcastle given a tinker's cuss about the finer sensibilities of the 15-man game and in wrapping up the Allied Dunbar Premiership at The Stoop yesterday, they ate an insubstantial Harlequins outfit alive without pausing to say grace.

Those rugby puritans who regard Dean Ryan, Rob Andrew and company as little better than bad-mannered cannibals - and there are legions who subscribe to that view - confidently expected the Geordies to greet the final whistle with an almighty communal belch and a two-buttocked salute in the general direction of Twickenham. And to be sure, the celebrations had a raucous tinge about them as legions of magpie-shirted Newcastle United refugees arrived from Wembley via the North and South Circulars to lend weight and volume to the knees-up.

Sir John Hall was there, of course. Having spent untold millions putting together a losing football team, he took special pleasure in the utterly ruthless triumph of a rugby side that cost him the sporting equivalent of thirty bob. There were even rumours that his controversial and less than popular son, Douglas, had made the short hop across to London to sample victory for a change. "Apparently, he's come disguised as Salman Rushdie," grinned one Geordie wit.

"Actually, it's more than money with Sir John," said Ryan, whose recent concussion prevented him leading his men in yesterday's denouement but emphatically did not prevent him hitting the celebration liquids with a vengeance. "There is cash wherever you look in the Premiership, give or take one or two sides at the bottom, and besides, we're not the biggest spenders in the league. What Sir John has brought is passion, desire, motivation. It's there in the dressing room and it rubs off on us all.

"We've stayed true to ourselves, absolutely faithful to our own values and our own style of rugby. If people want to knock us, to deny us the credit we deserve, that's fine by us. They're entitled to their views and they're welcome to them, too. We've taken our share of criticism, some of it warranted and some not, but we'd taken care to turn that criticism to positive effect - in fact, it's been a major motivational bonus for us. In that sense, I can say we're much happier without the praise."

Like Ryan, Andrew savoured the taste of title nectar with Wasps eight years ago. This, he insisted, was far, far sweeter. "We're living in a different world and playing a different game under different pressures," said the former Lions stand-off after his 19-point contribution to Harlequins' demise. "Anyway, there is no comparison in the two sets of circumstances. In 1990, the title crept up on us. This has been hanging round our necks since Christmas. We were faced with a long title race and those sorts of races aren't easy things to deal with."

As they had done all season, Newcastle approached their final and decisive piece of unfinished business with the word "basics" branded into their collective consciousness. "We have very clear ideas of how winning rugby is played and the most fundamental is that space has to be earned," said Steve Bates, the Geordies' clever, quick-witted coach. "You don't throw the ball around in the hope that space will appear. You make space by forcing large numbers of opponents to tackle men they would rather avoid like the plague."

Enter Pat Lam, Peter Walton, Richard Arnold, Nick Popplewell and Ross Nesdale, all of whom rode roughshod over or, more often, straight through a lamentably brittle Harlequins defence. The savage simplicity of their technique resulted in three close-range tries and a winning lead inside 35 minutes; Arnold put Gary Armstrong over for a 14th-minute opener before carrying Huw Harries and Laurent Cabannes over the line five minutes later, while Popplewell capitalised on Lam's pantherish purr into the Quins 22 shortly before the break.

It was every bit as processional afterwards as Nesdale, quite outstanding at hooker, made the running for Andrew's alert and low-slung scuttle seven minutes into the second period. Armstrong would go on to claim a pushover score from a Harlequins put-in; indeed, whenever Newcastle muscled their way into range, they possessed the biceps and triceps to turn territory into points.

But inside the one-track mind, there is a renaissance brain trying to get out and sure enough, we caught a glimpse of that multi-dimensional ambition just past the hour mark when Stuart Legg, a striking figure at full-back, fielded Jamie Williams' misdirected punt downfield and ran the ball back at a profit to link with the burly, bullish Walton. The Scottish No 8 surveyed the panorama of space around him and like a hippo on tiptoe, he sold Cabannes two masterly dummies before sending Lam screaming in at the left corner. Pure class.

As Zinzan Brooke, the Harlequins coach, suggested afterwards, Newcastle spent this inaugural Premiership campaign on the dirt track while Saracens, their season-long rivals, preferred to travel in style via the six-lane freeway. But it takes all sorts to make a brave new rugby world and when all is said and done, the Geordies won more matches, scored more points and conceded fewer than anyone else. That makes them worthy winners. If anyone wants to argue the toss, they can do so with Dean Ryan.

Harlequins: Tries Harries, Luger; Conversions Lacroix 2; Penalties Lacroix 2. Newcastle: Tries Armstrong 2, Arnold, Popplewell, Andrew, Lam; Conversions Andrew 4; Penalties Andrew 2.

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, J Ngauamo, P Mensah, D Luger; T Lacroix, H Harries (N Walshe, 62); J Leonard (R Nebbett, H-T), K Wood (capt), A Yates, G Llewellyn, T Collier, R Jenkins, L Cabannes, S White-Cooper.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, V Tuigamala (A Tait, 66), J Wilkinson, T Underwood; R Andrew, G Armstrong (capt); N Popplewell (G Graham, 48), R Nesdale (R Horton, 80), P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, G Weir (R Metcalfe, 77), P Lam, P Walton, R Arnold (S O'Neill, 77).

Referee: A Rowden (Reading).

Allied Dunbar

Premiership One

Final table

P W D L F A Pts

Newcastle (C) 22 19 0 3 645 387 38

Saracens 22 18 1 3 584 396 37

Bath 22 13 0 9 575 455 26

Leicester 22 12 2 8 569 449 26

Richmond 22 12 0 10 607 499 24

Gloucester 22 11 1 10 512 528 23

Sale 22 10 2 10 605 558 22

Northampton 22 9 1 12 493 472 19

Wasps 22 8 1 13 490 609 17

Harlequins 22 8 0 14 516 645 16

London Irish 22 6 0 16 457 673 12

Bristol 22 2 0 20 351 733 4

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