Newcastle found themselves on the sticky end of a comprehensive pasting when they visited Franklin's Gardens in the semi-final of the Powergen Cup in March, but they had the beating of Northampton yesterday. The fact that they came up marginally short causes all manner of grief for Rob Andrew's team: not only are they still outside the Heineken Cup qualifying zone, but they must travel to Gloucester this weekend for the first round of the play-offs. And that is the fixture from hell.
Cast your minds back to 29 December, when Newcastle's last trip to Kingsholm started with a mass dust-up, continued with the sendings-off of Olivier Azam and Epi Taione, and ended with Andrew, the visitors' director of rugby, levelling an accusation of racial abuse at Azam. Within a week, the Gloucester hierarchy had barred Andrew from their property and had threatened Newcastle with legal action, while the Rugby Football Union had set up an inquiry that took several weeks to acquit Azam of the charge.
Late on Friday evening, the two clubs kissed and made up by issuing a joint statement of apology and regret, although neither side gave more than a grudging millimetre of ground to the other. Fun and games ahead, then Rob?
"The last time we went to Kingsholm, we lost 29-25 in a highly entertaining match," Andrew said, with maximum irony. "It was always going to happen, wasn't it? Epi won't be playing, so that may help. He has a broken thumb. What doesn't help is the injury count everywhere else. We'll regroup in midweek, see who is still standing and attempt to put out a team. We have to try to win there, so we may as well look forward to it."
Andrew was not sure whether to expect a full-sized effigy of himself to appear in the Kingsholm Shed, or whether the local yokels would settle for a small-scale version a la Francois Pienaar, which used to hang from the stanchion when Saracens came to town. This much is certain, though: if Newcastle's forwards – most notably Hugh Vyvyan and Andrew Mower – perform with the drive and energy they displayed here, they will ask the vaunted Gloucester pack some interesting questions.
Mower was exceptional in the tackle and even better in the scavenging department, particularly after his opposite number, Budge Pountney, disappeared early with a nasty eye injury. Vyvyan, meanwhile, made a horrible mess of the Northampton line-out and repeatedly featured in open field with the ball concealed in a huge, hairy armpit. When the two were playing at full tilt, there was every prospect of a victory that would have earned the Falcons automatic Heineken qualification.
Unfortunately for them, Mower took one heavy hit too many and retreated from the fray shortly before the break, while Vyvyan was sent to the sin bin nine minutes into the second half after he interfered illegally with a Northampton rolling maul. During his absence, Mark Soden claimed a close-range score after some impressive driving from Tom Smith, and Paul Grayson's conversion gave the home side an 11-point advantage at 21-10.
Even then, Newcastle might have pinched it. Three Jonny Wilkinson penalties, two of them from the distant side of the half-way line, dragged them back to 21-19, and when the eternally combative Richard Arnold pilfered some Northampton ball at a defensive ruck, Wilkinson moved the visitors upfield and helped create a potential match-winning opportunity for Va'aiga Tuigamala on his final appearance for the club. The big Samoan, now wider than he is long, stampeded towards the line, but was bravely cut down by the leaner, lighter John Leslie.
Like their opponents, Northampton are still waiting on a Heineken place: they need either Wasps or Bristol to lose a play-off tie this weekend. In the likely event of things falling into place, they will need to sharpen up their act if they are to make a substantial impact on the élite competition next season. Their line-out is now a major area of concern, and their back row lacks balance.
However, they may have unearthed a tight-head prop of serious potential in Robbie Morris, a chrome-domed 20-year-old from Hertfordshire.
"Robbie hasn't been playing rugby for too long, but he's explosive, he's strong and he's beginning to show some game sense," said Wayne Smith, the Northampton coach. "He has rough edges, for sure, but you have to say he has a future. He's certainly convinced me of that."
Morris was at the heart of the drive that resulted in Grayson's wrap-up penalty in the 78th minute – a kick that ensured Northampton would relieve their opponents of a fifth-placed finish. Given the lamentable state they were in when Smith arrived in December, the Franklin's Gardens regulars could hardly have expected more.
Northampton – Tries Grayson, Soden; Conversion Grayson; Penalties Grayson 4. Newcastle – Try Vyvyan; Conversion: Wilkinson; Penalties: Wilkinson 4.
Northampton: J Shaw; J Brooks, P Jorgensen (M Tucker 11), J Leslie, B Cohen (N Beal h-t); P Grayson, M Dawson; T Smith, S Thompson (D Richmond h-t), M Stewart (R Morris h-t), J Phillips, O Brouzet, A Blowers, A Pountney (capt, G Seely 29), M Soden.
Newcastle: D Walder; L Botham, J Noon, T May (V Tuigamala 66), M Stephenson; J Wilkinson (capt), H Charlton; G Graham, M Thompson (N Makin 23), M Hurter, H Vyvyan, S Grimes, J Dunbar (P Lam 37), A Mower (R Devonshire 40), R Arnold.
Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).
Leicester v Bristol
Sale v Wasps
Gloucester v Newcastle
London Irish v Northampton.
Fixtures to be played 18/19 May