Rugby Union: Young Falcons grow up quickly

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The Independent Online
Newcastle 25 Bath 22

MATURITY USED to be Bath's stock-in-trade. They possessed an abundance of the stuff. Until comparatively recently, a youngster graduating to the Bath team had to be grown up before he was fully grown. It provided Bath with a considerable advantage when Jeremy Guscott and Mike Catt were able to shed their rugby adolescence so early in their careers. But those days, like Bath's killer instinct in their unwavering resolution to seize the biggest prizes, have long gone.

In a thrilling, if technically unsatisfying, Tetley's Bitter Cup fourth- round tie at Kingston Park, Bath put on another display of catch-up rugby, just as they did in the Premiership at Sale in mid-week. Then they allowed the Manchester side to pull up from 14-3, to overhaul them and be ahead at 18-17 before the break. In the second half, Bath were 32-18 in front, only to stand idly by while Sale reduced the deficit to 32-30. But at least Bath won, to end a run of six successive league defeats.

For 40 minutes on Saturday, the 10-times cup winners looked as if their self-confidence had come flooding back. Not a bit of it. They had turned round 22-6 in front, thanks to tries by Richard Webster, Catt and Russell Earnshaw. Catt converted twice and kicked a penalty, before it all started to go horribly wrong. It was catch up time again; only on this occasion there was to be no reprieve. Jonny Wilkinson and Ross Beattie saw to that.

Wilkinson has been fast-tracked to maturity by Newcastle, with results that would impress the longest-serving Bath watcher. Still only 19, Wilkinson kicked two late penalties to consign Bath to defeat 19-17, when they met in the league at Gateshead in September. If Bath have not forgotten that loss, they will never forgive Wilkinson for ending their interest in the cup.

The Falcons' only first-half scores were two penalties from Wilkinson. In a 10-minute spell, he kept them in it with three more penalties, as Bath failed to capitalise on the outstanding work of their pack in which Martin Haag, Dan Lyle, Webster and Dave Hilton were outstanding. Had Ieuan Evans taken a try-scoring opportunity with his usual adroitness it may have been different.

Beattie, just 21, is Newcastle's replacement for the departed Dean Ryan, and is twice as quick. From a lineout, he shaped to pop the ball to George Graham, Ben Sturnham bought the dummy, Kevin Maggs was swept away, and Beattie made the line unmolested. Wilkinson converted and then kicked the winning penalty when Sturnham infringed a minute before time. There was never a doubt he would miss.

Newcastle: Try Beattie; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties Wilkinson 6. Bath: Tries Webster, Catt, Earnshaw; Conversions Catt 2; Penalty Catt.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, M Shaw, J Wilkinson, V Tuigamala; R Andrew (capt), G Armstrong; G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter, G Archer, D Weir, P Walton, J Cartmell, R Beattie.

Bath: M Perry (I Evans, 51); I Balshaw, K Maggs, J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, G Cooper; D Hilton (K Yates, 65), M Regan, V Ubogu, M Haag, S Borthwick, R Webster (capt; B Sturnham, 51), R Earnshaw, D Lyle.

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).