Rugby Union: Ryan fans the fire for Newcastle

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The Independent Online
Newcastle 30 Saracens 25

NEWCASTLE UNITED's disgraced directors have landed themselves in quite enough trouble by poking fun at Alan Shearer, among others. Every cloud has a silver lining, though; at least they did not choose to award Tyneside's other big cat sportsman, Dean Ryan, the "Mary Poppins" tag. Had they done so, they would have needed to travel a good deal further than Barbados to find a safe haven.

Ryan may have been unusually quiet at Murrayfield on Sunday, but he was back on his game with a vengeance at Kingston Park last night as Newcastle re-established their Premiership credentials by out-snarling and outlasting a Saracens outfit who had spent the previous seven months matching them stride for stride and blow for blow.

In fairness to the visitors, they forced a passionate encounter all the way down to the last strand of frayed wire and the siege they carried out on the Newcastle line as the clock ticked into injury time was red in tooth and claw. It took some heroic barricade-manning by Ryan and his fellow back- rowers, Pat Lam and Peter Walton, to keep their ultimately decisive five- point lead intact.

The difficulties of cramming 7,000 spectators into a venue designed to handle 5,500 at best resulted in a delayed kick-off and for five seriously uncomfortable opening minutes, the home players seemed to be stuck outside with the late-comers. Saracens hit the ground running, controlling possession with quick, clinically executed rucks and confidently finding each other with an impressive variety of finger-tip cut-out passes.

Thanks to some outstanding scrummaging by Paul Wallace, the Irish Test Lion, the Londoners also took early control of the set-pieces and they deserved a more handsome reward for their initial efforts than Michael Lynagh's solitary penalty, converted after powerful loose- forward drives from Tony Diprose, Alex Bennett and Francois Pienaar. It was, however, understandable that Newcastle should take time to settle in the absence of Va'aiga Tuigamala and Tony Underwood.

It was Ryan who gave them a scarcely legitimate foothold on proceedings. To begin with, he sprayed a gallon of petrol on a molten North-east atmosphere by throwing a big right hand at an implacably competitive and seriously fired-up Pienaar. He then set about bringing his unique brand of rugby hostility to bear in more constructive ways, working the right touchline expertly enough to create the launching pad for Stuart Legg's opening try.

There was a touch of good fortune about it. Jonny Wilkinson, the midfield prodigy so strongly fancied by England, was comprehensively buried by Philippe Sella as the ball moved left but the ball bounced kindly for the Newcastle full-back and with Matthew Singer, his opposite number, failing to make his tackle count, there was just enough space for a left- footed sidestep and a shimmy to the line.

Sarries' defence would let them down again as Nick Popplewell crossed for a second try on 16 minutes and even though Diprose, who was very nearly as impressive as Ryan in his more cultured, ball-handling manner, claimed a try under a heap of bodies near the left corner flag, Rob Andrew's straightforward penalty ensured a 17-10 interval lead for the Falcons.

With Pienaar spitting nails at the very epicentre of a compelling physical battle, Saracens turned the screw sufficiently in the second half to threaten a famous victory. Lynagh was in vintage kicking form and five penalties would, on another occasion, have done the trick. But Ryan's remarkable ability to secure important ball at the heels of a retreating pack stopped the Londoners from fully capitalising on their advantage and when Walton, on as a replacement for Richard Arnold, blew Danny Grewcock away to complete an all-important tap penalty try on 66 minutes, the die was finally cast.

So Newcastle are back on title track, ahead of Sarries on points difference with valuable games in hand. It is not over by any manner of means, however. These two must meet again at Vicarage Road and both have games against Bath, who have been there and done it so often in the past. It has been a magnificent Premiership thus far and it is inconceivable that the fascination will fall away now.

Newcastle: Tries Legg, Popplewell, Walton; Conversions Andrew 3; Penalties Andrew 3; Saracens: Tries Diprose; Conversions Lynagh; Penalties Lynagh 6.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, J Wilkinson, A Tait, M Shaw (T Stimpson, 32); R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale (N Frankland, 17), P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, G Weir, P Lam, D Ryan (capt), R Arnold (P Walton, 63).

Saracens: M Singer; R Constable, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, B Daniel (G Johnson, 67); M Lynagh, K Bracken; R Grau, G Chuter, P Wallace, P Johns (B Sturnham, 64), D Grewcock, F Pienaar, A Diprose (capt), A Bennett.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).