A final to savour, a future to look forward to

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The Independent Online

This had the look of a proper cup final and, boy, did it live up to its billing. No strutting Leicester to spoil the occasion; no Bath hordes. Just two aspiring teams, burning with bright young talent, anxious to show off on a big stage, desperate for different reasons to anoint their season with some silverware. Newcastle as a sign of a bright new tomorrow; Quins as a symbolic farewell to a tired old yesterday.

This had the look of a proper cup final and, boy, did it live up to its billing. No strutting Leicester to spoil the occasion; no Bath hordes. Just two aspiring teams, burning with bright young talent, anxious to show off on a big stage, desperate for different reasons to anoint their season with some silverware. Newcastle as a sign of a bright new tomorrow; Quins as a symbolic farewell to a tired old yesterday.

No one cared to split the two before kick-off and, with the match deep into injury-time, the outcome was no clearer. Quins hung on for dear life, the Falcons switched on the overdrive and when Dave Walder crowned a sparkling individual performance with the match-winning try, the swelling of sympathy for the losers was tempered by the understanding that, for once in their flamboyant life, the Quins had been beaten by a more adventurous side. If they continue to mature apace, under Rob Andrew, these Falcons will be worth watching for many more years yet. They played with the pace and power of England in black. And 71,000 fans at Twickenham enjoyed every pulsating moment.

Beforehand, Quins spouted the current shibolleths about the significance of the league, where they languish second from bottom, but no one truly believed a word of it. Quins are a cup side, praise be, a team built for a sprint not a marathon, whose psyche has for years been based on a favourable alignment of the constellations and a decent night out. Lethal over five or six games, Quins could never quite see the purpose of labouring the point - or labouring for points - over 30.

Quins are the Tottenham of rugby, their chequered history a victory for style over substance, their shirts a source of motivation to the hard men of the north, a source of ridicule to everyone else and a notable source of revenue for the marketing department at the Stoop. Quins, as Mark Evans, their new chief executive, points out, have the strongest brand name in the game.

And, like Tottenham, they are deadly in the cup when the year ends in a one. Their last victory here was in 1991, when payment was properly left in the players' boots and professionalism was merely a twinkle in an agent's eye.

Yet, we had been warned, not for the first time, this was a revamped Quins, banished to train, not in the lee of Twickenham, but in the army barracks at Aldershot where there are precious few fancy wine bars. Add to the famous six colours a blue collar. Pull the other one. Knackered Quins players yesterday were attended by water-carriers wearing pink bow ties, blazers, and light blue and white socks in a conscious throwback to the great age of the Racing Club and the exploits of Franck Mesnel and Eric Blanc, who, in 1987, played the National Championship finals wearing the same pink bow ties. Mesnel and Blanc would have recognised the panache of much of the rugby on show at Twickenham yesterday, though the fact that the men in all black played the bulk of it might have confused them a little.

Though both sides contributed hugely to a thoroughly enlightening and entertaining game, it was the young guns of the Falcons - Stephenson, Noon, May and Walder - who most pleased the eye. No one would have been purring more loudly than Clive Woodward, the England coach, who has another generation of naïvely explosive runners at his disposal, should the current crop lose their way. If May opened the scoring with a straightforward run through Jon Dawson and, of all people, Jason Leonard, his second, which hauled Newcastle back into contention midway through the second half, was a testimony to pure power and simplicity of thought.

Two Quins tacklers lay in wait, May burst through the pair of them with the ease of John Wayne entering a particularly dangerous saloon bar. Had Jonny Wilkinson, whose tackling was awesome, kept his kicking boots on from last week, the Falcons would have drawn level.

As it was, heading into the last quarter with legs beginning to ache, Quins led by a mere two points and could expect a severe examination of their willpower. Now we would see if Quins had swapped their dinner jackets for the full metal equivalent. But, within minutes, a slick passing movement crowned by Keith Wood's neat outside pass to Paul Burke - and the subsequent conversion by the deadly Quins fly-half - seemed to have answered the question. But it is never quite so easy with Quins. Some flimsy defending followed and, with the minutes ticking away on the stadium clock, Jim Jenner bulldozed over to put the northerners within a try of victory.

Gallant defeat. The Quins have had their share down the years, but even they would have struggled to join the party last night.

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