In the 10 years he spent as a Newcastle player, Tom May got to know his way across the whitewash in the Falcons' home nest. With his first touch as a 76th minute replacement centre for Northampton yesterday, the 30-year-old crossed the home line to secure a bonus point victory for the in-form Saints.
They might have shot their bolt in the Heineken Cup, but Jim Mallinder's men are gathering notable momentum on the domestic front. A sixth win in seven league games has taken them up into the play-off zone for the first time this season – into third place in the Premiership, behind Harlequins and Saracens.
It proved to be a routine victory against a Newcastle side who start the new year still six points adrift at the foot of the table.
Watched by Stuart Lancaster, England's interim head coach, Ben Foden plundered the first two tries and set up the fourth. In between times, the Red Rose full-back shook off an ankle injury but at the final whistle there was the worrying site of Courtney Lawes collapsed in a heap and being helped gingerly off the field by two physios. "He's sprained his knee," Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, said of the second-row dynamo. "The physios were just being precautionary with him. Fingers crossed, he'll be fine. Hopefully, there's no serious damage."
Whether Lawes will be fit for Saints' home match against Quins on Friday night remains to be seen. It will also be intriguing to discover whether there will be a place in Northampton's starting line-up for Chris Ashton, who will have served his four-week suspension for his hair pulling antics against Alesana Tuilagi but whose refusal to open contract talks has placed his future at Franklin's Gardens in serious doubt.
"Chris is still part of our squad," Mallinder said of his seemingly Saracens-bound England winger. "We've not washed our hands with him. He's not signed for anyone as far as I know. You just crack on with it. You just want players who want to play for you. You can't have superstars in your team." Ouch.
It was painful from the start for the Falcons yesterday, with their line-out malfunctioning, their scrum getting shoved around, and their rush defence repeatedly getting ahead of itself. They were already trailing to a Ryan Lamb penalty when they conceded the opening try in the eighth minute. It came from a lost line-out, the former Newcastle captain Phil Dowson stealing possession at the tail. The pilfered ball was shipped on via Lamb to centre George Pisi, whose angled grubber kick found the Newcastle defence not at home and left Foden free to gather and touch down. Lamb added the conversion, leaving Northampton 10-0 up.
Still, the Falcons managed to claw their way back, their Kiwifly-half Jimmy Gopperth slotting a penalty and then launching the break that yielded a score on the left for Suka Hufanga. It was a first try in Newcastle colours for the Tongan winger.
There was a shock to follow, with Gopperth – the winner of the Premiership's Golden Boot in the last two seasons – pushing wide his conversion attempt. He made amends with a penalty before the interval and, with Lamb landing one at the other end, Northampton were 13-11 up at half-time.
Four minutes after the resumption, Newcastle snatched the lead. The Saints captain and hooker, Dylan Hartley, was deemed to have sinned at a ruck and Gopperth administered the punishment with a penalty from 40 yards.
Just when it looked like Hartley and his colleagues might have a scrap on their hands, Lamb eased the pressure. Taking a feed from scrum-half Lee Dickson, the former Gloucester fly-half angled a grubber kick into the right corner and Foden had little trouble in galloping past flanker Richard Mayhew to get to the ball and dot it down. Lamb squeezed over the touchline conversion and Northampton were back in front.
By the 58th minute, Saints had a 25-14 cushion, the 21st Tongan prop Soane Tonga'uiha powering over from a driven line-out in the left corner. Lamb missed the conversion and the only question thereafter was whether Saints could claim a bonus point score.
They ought to have done so on the hour but their Russian winger Vasily Artemyev failed to grasp a gimme of a cross-field kick from Lamb. As it was, it took until the 78th minute for the fourth Northampton try to materialise. It came from a shimmy and half-break on the right by Foden. He fed the ball out wide to Artemyev, whose inside pass left May with a clear run to the line.
Newcastle G Goosen (T Catterick, 58); J Manning, J Fitzpatrick, L Eves, S Hufanga; J Gopperth, J Pasqualin (C Pilgrim, 67); G Shiells (A Wells, h-t), R Vickers (J Graham, 72), E Murray (D Frazier, 74), J Hudson (capt) (T Swinson, h-t), A Fondse, R Mayhew (T Tu'ifua, 51), W Welch (M Wilson, 65), A Hogg.
Northampton B Foden; V Artemeyev, G Pisi, J Downey (T May 76), S Armstrong; R Lamb (S Myler, 67), L Dickson (M Roberts, 72); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 67), D Hartley (capt) (M Haywood, 67), P Doran-Jones (B Mujati, 56), S Manoa, M Sorensen (C Day, 68), C Lawes, P Dowson, R Wilson.
Referee T Wigglesworth (RFU).
Pens: Gopperth 2
Tries: Foden 2, Tonga'uiha, May
Cons: Lamb 2, Myler
Pens: Lamb 2
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