Rugby Union:Popplewell ends well

London Irish 19 Newcastle 35
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The Independent Online
Dean Ryan, the Newcastle captain, experienced life, or more accurately 10 minutes, in the sin-bin as the Falcons maintained their 100 per cent record in the Premiership in a full-blooded encounter at Sunbury.

Ryan's historic footnote came in the 70th minute. He had just been spoken to by the referee Doug Chapman and when he barged into Malcolm O'Kelly while the London Irish lock was in mid-air, Chapman brandished the new white triangular card. Ironically, during his absence, Newcastle, who were having trouble dealing with the fire of the Irish, prospered, quelling the uprising with two late tries from, of all people, Nick Popplewell.

The Irish led 16-15 after a rousing first half, reminiscent of their inspired work that clipped Wasps' wings last weekend.

It all looked so easy for Newcastle, fielding 11 internationals, in the early stages and Garath Archer and Doddie Weir monopolised the line-outs. Indeed, Rob Andrew was so confident of eclipsing the Irish - the Exiles without their injured British Lion, Jeremy Davidson - that he spurned to kick at goal on four occasions from comfortable positions. It smacked of arrogance and was difficult to comprehend.

However, Newcastle's pressure paid off when, from a close-range scrum, Gary Armstrong and Ryan combined to send Pat Lam crashing over. For once, the referee missed a forward pass.

The Irish had been on the back foot for the first quarter but when they broke free, Newcastle had the rudest of awakenings. David Humphreys led the counter-attack with a blindside break and when the surge ended in front of the Newcastle posts, Michael Corcoran kicked a penalty. When Alan Tait was tackled without the ball, Andrew replied in kind, belatedly deciding that three points in the hand was a wise investment.

This business of declining to kick for goal seemed to be catching. Niall Hogan took a tap and although the first attack was held near the line, from a scrum which followed Kevin Spicer, a member of an impressive back row, broke on the open side and Hogan, with the help of a dummy, breached the Newcastle defence.

Corcoran's conversion levelled the scores and the wing, who rejoined the club from Harlequins this season, then landed two beautifully struck penalties, the first from the Newcastle 10-yard line and the second from even further out.

From being 10-3 ahead, Newcastle found themselves 16-10 behind. They needed a score urgently and they got it on the stroke of half-time when the ever-dangerous Lam drove play deep inside the Irish 22 and Ross Nesdale burrowed over for a try.

The Irish foolishly wasted a probable three points at the start of the second half when Justin Bishop impulsively took a tap penalty. In the 46th minute Newcastle regained the lead with an Andrew penalty and they went further ahead with an extraordinary try from Popplewell. He broke free from a rolling maul and ran 20 yards unopposed.

He even had the gall to add another. Being beaten by the assorted all stars of Newcastle is one thing, but to have an Irishman apply the coup de grace was rubbing it in. In the last minute of injury time Ryan returned to the fray. He only had time to shake Popplewell's hand.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt, S Burns, 79); J Bishop, N Burrows, M McCall, M Corcoran; D Humphreys, N Hogan; J Fitzpatrick, T Redmond (R Kellam, 65), G Halpin (A Kershaw, 72), G Fulcher, M O'Kelly, K O'Connell, K Spicer, K Dawson.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Bentley, V Tuigamala, A Tait, G Childs; R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, D Weir, P Lam, D Ryan (capt), R Arnold.

Referee: D Chapman (Yorkshire)