Rugby Union: Ray of hope in defeat for West

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West Hartlepool 19 Newcastle 24

WEST HARTLEPOOL'S season was hurtling downhill after their opening three games, during which they conceded a total of 151 points. They didn't win this North East derby at Victoria Park it is true, but they produced the sort of fighting qualities in sufficient measure to suggest that relegation is far from a foregone conclusion.

Even when West were 24-9 adrift, with 10 minutes left to play, they returned to the offensive with a marvellously spirited finish which earned them sparkling tries by Emmet Farrell and Jon Benson. With a tad more good fortune West may even have dealt Newcastle a surprise defeat for the second successive week. The owning consortium at Hartlepool have promised their director of rugby, Mike Brewer, four new players. If West keep playing like this, Brewer will have something to build on.

Newcastle will be grateful that West's thunderous finale came too late to make a difference. Sure, victory enabled Newcastle to climb four places up the table to sixth. But they revealed nothing like the authority of last season, and to have a hope of retaining their title, Newcastle will need to play much better than this; especially against teams in the top half of the table.

It was hardly an afternoon for fancy rugby but West, with the rain and a stiff breeze at their backs, began full of vim, driving Newcastle back towards the town end. When the maul went down, Steven Vile kicked the penalty. West might have gone further ahead when Tu Nu'ali'itia fired a long cut-out pass towards their debutant centre, Pita Tanginoa. The Tongan failed to make contact, but Brewer was on hand and, with support on his left, a try beckoned. But Brewer's pass was adjudged forward.

Nevertheless, West's vigorous opening was an emphatic declaration of intent as to how they were going to meet the challenge presented by the champions. There was no doubt that the West pack were up for it, as they pounded into the Newcastle forwards.

Jonny Wilkinson slotted over a penalty for Newcastle after Richard Arnold had led a charge deep into West territory. But Newcastle were soon on the back foot again, as Phillipe Farner and Jon Benson went agonisingly close to scoring tries. Had they done so it would have been no more than West deserved, yet their only reward was two more Vile penalties.

Heartening though West's first-half performance had been, they fell for a soft try within a minute of the restart, when Va'aiga Tuigamala was on the end of Gary Armstrong's grubber kick. And then they went further behind when Peter Walton was fed by Armstrong for the touchdown. Doddie Weir got the third, Wilkinson converted all three and West could have tumbled into oblivion. But Farrell and Benson - not to mention the West forwards - would have none of it.

West Hartlepool: Tries Farrell, Benson; Penalties: Vile 3. Newcastle: Tries: Tuigamala, Walton, Weir; Conversions: Wilkinson 3; Penalty: Wilkinson.

West Hartlepool: E Farrell; J Benson, P Tanginoa, J Connolly, S John; S Vile, T Nu'uali'itia (capt); S Sparks, A Peacock (T Herbert, 39), P Beal (P Seymour, 63), P Farner, B Fuller, J Ponton, D Hyde (S Cassidy, 53), M Brewer.

Newcastle: P Massey; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, J Wilkinson, T Underwood; R Andrew, G Armstrong; G Graham, R Nesdale, I Peel, G Archer, D Weir, P Walton, R Arnold, D Ryan (capt).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).