Rugby Union: Underwood makes Sarries suffer

Newcastle 43 Saracens 12
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The Independent Online
LIVING UP to expectations is suddenly proving well beyond Saracens' capabilities as the title favourites slumped to their third defeat in four matches and had Troy Coker sent off. Three tries by Tony Underwood rekindled Newcastle's hopes of retaining their title in a one-sided contest which had slipped beyond Saracens before Coker's 59th-minute dismissal.

The Australian's blatant punching of Ian Peel made him the most obvious culprit, although he may not have been the instigator of an off-the-ball flare-up involving several players. Saracens' other lock, Danny Grewcock, had earlier been sin-binned along with Newcastle's Richard Arnold following a scrap at the bottom of a ruck. But these were isolated incidents in an otherwise fast and flowing encounter in which Newcastle rose to the heights of last season.

With Va'aiga Tuigamala continuing to find his best barnstorming form after his return to the wing, forcing Jim Naylor on to the bench, Underwood perhaps felt under threat. For his first try after 36 minutes he made spectacular amends for dropping what should have been a scoring pass minutes earlier. He received the ball just outside the 22 on the right wing, stepped inside, burst through three tackles and accelerated to dive under the posts.

Underwood's second came when he appeared in the centre to burst on to a short pass from Rob Andrew, but his most memorable try came seven minutes from time when Tuigamala broke away up the left, then switched the ball right via Martin Shaw and Jonny Wilkinson for Underwood to speed home from 25 metres.

This was the Falcons' last appearance at Gateshead stadium before returning to their home at Kingston Park, and another disappointing crowd of 4,832 confirmed the wisdom of their decision.

This was the second of Newcastle's four home matches this season to be televised live by Sky and the club believe that the enforced switch from playing on a Sunday has contributed towards keeping the fans away.

Yesterday's match had nothing like the atmosphere of last season's epic encounter under the Kingston Park floodlights which Newcastle won by five points on their way to the title.

Andrew still recalls the sheer tension of that occasion, but he had almost an armchair ride behind a dominant pack yesterday, while Saracens who experienced front-row problems without the injured Paul Wallace and Roberto Grau. It was not a particularly happy return to the North East for Wayne de Jonge, who played for West Hartlepool two years ago and is on three- month trial with Saracens from New South Wales.

Alain Penaud hit a post with a second-minute drop goal attempt for Saracens and later burst past a despairing Andrew tackle on the outside, otherwise Saracens were barely in the contest, especially after Francois Pienaar left the field in the 34th minute.

They fell behind to a 17th-minute penalty by Wilkinson, then two minutes after coming on as a temporary replacement for Ross Nesdale, 22-year-old hooker Richard Horton was driven over for a try.

Wilkinson converted, and was again on target after the first of Underwood's tries to make it 17-0 at the break. Saracens threatened to get into the game four minutes after the re-start when the South African full-back Gavin Johnson sped 60 metres up the left wing to score and converted his own try.

But when Coker was sent off shortly afterwards Saracens' resistance disappeared. Scrum-half Gary Armstrong had a clear run to the line from a ruck 25 metres out and after Underwood completed his hat-trick, Shaw also scored for Newcastle in injury time, with Andrew converting.

England flanker Richard Hill added a consolation try for Saracens at the death.

Newcastle: S Legg, I Tuigamala, M Shaw, R Andrew, T Underwood (J Naylor, 76), J Wilkinson (P Massey, 78), G Armstrong, G Graham, R Nesdale (R Horton, 19-40), I Peel (S Best, 59-71), G Archer, D Weir, P Walton, R Arnold (S O'Neill, 71), D Ryan (capt).

Saracens: G Johnson, R Constable, J Thompson (B Taylor, 62), S Ravenscroft, R Wallace, A Penaud, K Bracken, A Olver, G Chuter, W de Jonge (B Reidy, 62), T Coker, D Grewcock, F Pienaar (P Johns, 34), R Hill, T Diprose (capt).

Referee: C White (Gloucester and District)