Rugby Union: Passions overflow at Newcastle

Newcastle 27 Leicester 10
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The Independent Online
Newcastle 27 Leicester 10

SOME people will do anything to avoid a tour of New Zealand. Will Greenwood, Leicester's stylish and prodigiously gifted international centre, may or may not have succeeded in ruling himself out of the summer trip by landing a half-hearted head-butt on Newcastle's stand-off and director of rugby, Rob Andrew, in the closing seconds of yesterday's combustible contest at Gateshead. But, whatever the severity of his punishment, his imaginative approach made a refreshing change from the usual pleas of burn-out and injury.

Greenwood "walked" as the clock ticked over into injury time. Newcastle had already secured two priceless Premiership points - paid for in blood and sweat, if not tears - when Ed Morrison, generally regarded as the world's leading referee, spotted the 25-year-old Lion connecting with Andrew as the dust settled on another bone-shaking ruck.

Six minutes previously, Morrison had issued a general warning to the two captains after a humdinger of a set-to between the packs.

"It was pretty innocuous, more a kiss than a butt, but I'm afraid Ed had little choice, given the fact that he had just announced 'the next one goes' edict," said Andrew. "I'd speak up for Will if asked, of course I would; there was nothing full-blooded about it and anyway, it was completely out of character. Had it not been for the earlier punch-up, I'm sure Ed would have taken him to one side and told him not to be so daft."

Like everything else in English rugby, disciplinary procedures are in a state of such flux that it is next to impossible to second-guess the outcome of Greenwood's untimely predicament. However, the accepted rule of thumb - or, in this instance, rule of head - is that butting carries a 60-day suspension, a penalty that would inevitably put England's most creative midfield talent out of the southern hemisphere sojourn.

If Dean Richards was not entirely happy with his side's discipline, while insisting - with a slightly unfortunate choice of words - that Greenwood was "not one of the game's head cases", the Leicester coach acknowledged a more general lack of compusure; he was none too happy with the refereeing, either. He also delivered a well-chosen barb in the direction of the Premiership favourites. "For some reason, there is a problem every time we play them," he said.

And sure enough, there were problems aplenty. Both Leicester props, Graham Rowntree and Darren Garforth, found themselves on the wrong end of yellow cards, as did Richard Arnold, the Newcastle flanker. Arnold and Garforth were "at it" throughout the first half and the violent undercurrent surfaced with a vengeance after the break as Newcastle's unashamedly physical pack turned the screw.

One member of that pack, Pat Lam, was as outstanding as he was blameless. While Gateshead's favourite son, Brendan Foster, confined himself to running around his local athletics stadium, Lam stampeded all over it, covering every square metre of turf in a startling display of muscular ball-carrying. "He's our cutting edge," said Andrew. "The other forwards give him the freedom to roam and that is when he is at his most dangerous."

Dean Ryan, the Newcastle captain, had already worked Gary Armstrong over for the simplest of opening tries on 13 minutes when Lam picked an angle behind his half-backs and ran on to Jonny Wilkinson's pass for a second strike early in the second quarter. The Falcons were not playing particularly well but, despite a Neil Back try from a perfectly executed line-out maul, converted by Joel Stransky who also struck a penalty, they reached the interval 14-10 to the good.

They re-emerged with three fresh ball-carriers - Va'aiga Tuigamala, George Graham and Peter Walton - and their influence proved decisive. When, after 75 minutes, Walton finally made the line from close range after a prolonged and hostile siege of the Leicester defences, the deed was effectively done. It was left to Andrew to rub it in with two penalties at the death, the second of which capitalised on Greenwood's flash of frustration.

"Had we lost out there, it would have been over for us," admitted Andrew. "We were locked at 14-10 for what seemed like an age and it was only when Peter [Walton] broke the deadlock that we were able to relax a little. But relaxation is not really an option; we may have the winning of the Premiership in our own hands, but no one is going to lie down and give it to us. We'll have to earn it, probably the hard way."

Newcastle: Tries Armstrong, Lam, Walton; Conversions Andrew 3; Penalties Andrew 2. Leicester: Try Back; Conversion Stransky; Penalty Stransky.

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

Leicester: M Horak; C Joiner, J Overend, W Greenwood, T Barlow; J Stransky, A Healey; G Rowntree (P Freshwater, 81), D West, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Corry, E Miller (P Gustard, 39), W Johnson, N Back.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).