Exiles find comfort in stalemate with Falcons

Newcastle 12 London Irish 12
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The Independent Online

Out of form, and badly out-scrummaged on the night, London Irish nonetheless found a way to end their run of six consecutive defeats last night, renewing their prospects of a top-four finish in the process. Newcastle, who have made something of a speciality of failing to win matches they have dominated this season, especially at home, are beginning to look nervously over their shoulders.

Irish welcomed back the England internationals Steffon Armitage and Paul Hodgson, together with their Romanian tighthead prop Paulica Ion. Falcons made two changes, both in the pack, Peter Browne coming in at No 8 for the injured Filipo Levi and Will Welch replacing Josh Afu in the back row.

The Newcastle pack got the push on their opponents in the very first scrum, forcing Irish to scramble to retain possession. It boded well for the Falcons on the desperately soft pitch, and the Irish front row brought down the second scrum, but New- castle's fly-half, Jimmy Gopperth missed the penalty, as he had after an earlier line-out infringement.

The Exiles' front row were a different proposition in the loose, though, handling the ball with a dexterity and awareness which made the insistence of Chris Malone and Peter Hewat on always kicking for position frustrating. It paid off after 20 minutes, however, when Seilala Mapusua's break and Hewat's chip forced Newcastle to concede a line-out close to their own line. George Stowers caught, and the Irish forwards drove the No 8 over the line.

Five minutes later, they repeated the process. Taking the ball at first receiver, Hewat glided past the Falcons' back row to set up position, and after a series of drives Armitage drove low to ground the ball despite Gopperth's attempted tackle. Given that Newcastle's last five tries have all been scored by a hooker following driving mauls, two by Rob Vickers and three by Alex Walker, it was very much a case of the biter bit.

Tom Homer converted, but a fumble by the full-back in his own 22 gave Gopperth the chance to put his side on the scoreboard before half-time. Homer's handling was more secure after the break as he bravely fell on the ball as Brent Wilson hacked through, but the Newcastle forwards began to transfer their superiority in the set-piece to the loose. Led by Armitage, not always legally, the Irish defended for their lives, but Gopperth, who had a nightmare with the ball in hand, had finally found his range off the floor.

The final 10 minutes saw New- castle camped in their opponents' territory. A knife-edge forward pass decision stopped Alex Tait putting the Falcons ahead, and for the fourth time this season Newcastle had to settle for a draw in front of their own supporters.

Newcastle Tait; Williams, Bobo, Tu'ipulotu, Amesbury (Vickerman, 24); Gopperth, Young; Golding, Vickers, Hayman, Hudson, Swinson, Wilson, Welch (Sorensen, 70), Browne (Afu, 55).

London Irish Homer; Ojo, Seveali'i, Mapusua, Hewat; Malone (Lamb, 55), Hodgson; Dermody, Paice (Buckland 62), Ion; Roche, Casey (Perry, 70); Thorpe (Gibson 55), Armitage, Stowers.

Referee: R Debney.