Rugby Union: Newcastle's irresistible progress

Northampton 17 Newcastle 21
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The Independent Online
IF THERE must be considerable doubt about the methods they employ, there can be no question - in Newcastle's minds at least - that the end will more than justify these means.

Their game is built entirely around the muscularly abrasive pack and the tactical shrewdness of their two massively experienced half-backs. As hard as Northampton tried yesterday and as intelligently as they applied their own strategy, they were unable to stem the relentless driving of the mighty Newcastle pack and it is difficult to imagine that any side in the league can now thwart them in their ambition to win the title.

Despite a rousing finish in which they made a series of furious assaults on the Newcastle line and succeeded in scoring a try by Chris Johnson five minutes from the end, Northampton fell just short. Newcastle are a confrontational team, their every move calculated to intimidate whether it is Va'iaga Tuigamala punching holes through the midfield, Pat Lam punching holes around the fringes or Dean Ryan just punching.

The Newcastle captain was by some margin the most unpopular player in the eyes of the crowd and succeeded in incurring the referee's displeasure into the bargain, receiving the yellow card - his fourth of the season - for senselessly upending Jason Chandler from a kick-off.

Although Northampton were perhaps not averse to clipping what is in any case the shortest fuse in English rugby, Ryan did himself no favours and in this mood he is more of a hindrance than a help to his colleagues. In the first 25 minutes the penalty count stood at 10-0 against Newcastle and four of those Paul Grayson converted into points.

Although the sheer weight of Newcastle's attacks always threatened what was too often a lightweight defence, North-ampton's game plan worked well enough throughout the first half. They threw low, hard and fast into the line-out, thereby escaping the clutches of Newcastle's massive jumpers and from a swiftly released ball in the loose Tim Rodber and the other back-row forwards drove on through the midst of the Newcastle pack to gain valuable ground. This, combined with a scrummage solidly locked by Garry Pagel, threatened at times to undermine Newcastle's hitherto unquestioning self-belief.

Yet Northampton's fragile midfield was a constant worry. Gregor Townsend, so often the darling of the home crowd, had a dreadful match. On four occasions he undid the excellent work of his forwards with wretched passes which went to ground.

To make matters worse his co-centre Matt Allen, normally the most reliable of tacklers, was finding Tuigamala both an irresistible force and an immovable object, although the Newcastle centre moved at a brisk enough pace to get up alongside Rob Andrew, who had sliced through Northampton's defence from the line-out.

Tuigamala went in underneath the posts and with Andrew converting the try and kicking a penalty in injury time, Newcastle had in effect repaired the damage done to them by Grayson and their own indiscipline in the first quarter.

The signs were ominous for Northampton from the restart and they allowed Gary Armstrong enough room to put Jim Naylor away for Newcastle's second try 10 minutes into the half. When Richard Jackson was submerged and overpowered following Andrew's soaring up and under, Northampton were caught offside in front of the posts. There was no way back.

Although they had the better of the closing exchanges, forcing two line- outs, five scrummages and another rash of penalties conceded by Newcastle a few yards from the opposition line, Northampton were unable to extract anything more than Johnson's late try and it was Andrew's third penalty which completed the scoring.

Northampton: R Jackson; J Sleightholme, G Townsend, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson (J Bramhall, 73); G Pagel, A Clarke (C Johnson, 56), M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, T Rodber (capt), G Seely, B Pountney.

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

Referee: J Pearson (Yarm, Cleveland).