Nobody from Newcastle seemed quite sure whether to celebrate at the final whistle here, least of all Alan Tait's players. This was a sixth Aviva Premiership defeat in a row, another blow to a team who have struggled all season, and yet it represented another step closer to safety.
The losing bonus point that Luke Fielden's controversial 76th-minute try secured means that the bottom club, Leeds, must at least draw their final-day match, at Northampton on Saturday, if they are to stay up at Newcastle's expense, assuming the Falcons do not take anything from Bath at the Rec. That is a long shot but as Neil Back, the Leeds head coach, recently said, funny things can happen in sport.
Bath secured a place in the Heineken Cup with this win and their time for progress in the Premiership will be next year. Still bubbling from their 43-10 annihilation of Wasps at Twickenham, they arrived on Tyneside knowing they had to win to keep alive their hopes of a play-off place this season.
Afterwards their defence coach, Brad Davis, said: "We had two main aims going into this match. The first was to secure Heineken Cup qualification and the second was get to the last game of the season with the target of making the play-offs. We have done that; now we have to finish off the job."
Tait has found some spirit among a youthful squad and Bath never had it easy, even though they looked capable of moving through the gears. Matt Banahan withdrew from the match, as his wife was due to give birth to their first child. Butch James, drafted in, missed a relatively straightforward penalty and Jimmy Gopperth did likewise for Newcastle.
Gopperth, however, was instrumental in the first meaningful move of the match, in the 19th minute. The New Zealander's fine pass began a deft handling sequence which involved Rob Vickerman and Tane Tuipulotu and culminated in Alex Tait, the full-back, almost going over on the left. Newcastle began to build their phases, forcing Bath to retreat deep into their 22 and concede a penalty, which Gopperth kicked.
Bath responded three minutes later when, after several phases, Michael Claassens showed outstanding dexterity to slalom through from close range. James' conversion was off target and another penalty from Gopperth restored Newcastle's lead, though Bath pressed hard before the interval.
Five minutes before the break they stretched the Newcastle defence and James' clever pass almost put Jacques Boussuge in at the right corner. He was repelled but the Falcons conceded a penalty which James could not miss.
Bath upped the tempo after the restart and once Sam Vesty had kicked a penalty they had countless phases inside Newcastle's 22. The Falcons could have buckled, especially after a penalty from James put Bath 14-6 up with only seven minutes left. But Newcastle responded three minutes later when Tuipulotu's teasing kick invited Fielden to ground the ball ahead of Nick Abendanon.
Gopperth's conversion hit the post but the try had ensured that Newcastle did not finish the game empty-handed.
Tait said: "The lads didn't know whether to celebrate or not. I asked Luke if he'd scored and he shrugged his shoulders, so there you go. But given the fact we've been on the end of some really contentious decisions this season, we'll take that one."
Newcastle A Tait (J Manning, 48); L Fielden, R Vickerman (J Fitzpatrick, 67), T Tuipulotu, G Bobo; J Gopperth, M Young; J Golding, M Thompson (R Vickers, 48), E Murray (K Brookes, 56), J Hudson (capt), A van der Heijden, T Swinson (M Wilson, 66), A Hogg (C Pilgrim, 79), W Welch (A Gray, 51).
Bath N Abendanon; J Boussuge (N Scott, 56), M Carraro, S Vesty (M McMillan, 61), T Biggs; B James, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman (N Catt, 56), L Mears (R Batty, 67), D Wilson (D Bell, 51), I Fernandez Lobbe (G Mercer, 69), D Grewcock (J Ovens, 79), B Skirving, S Taylor, L Moody.
Referee JP Doyle (London).
Pens: Gopperth 2
Pens: James 2, VestyReuse content