Long season in store (already) for flat Falcons

Newcastle 9 Bath 22
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The Independent Online

It was not the best of the days for the Bath fly-half. Just the one penalty for Stephen Donald in a 12-3 defeat for the Chiefs in New Zealand's ITM Cup final in Hamilton. Still, it was a good day for the man who is keeping the blue, black and white No 10 shirt warm until Dan Carter's erstwhile understudy, deemed surplus to All Black World Cup requirements, arrives from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

In the Land of the Long White Faces – with the diminishing flock who follow the Newcastle Falcons (just 3,650 on Saturday night) already wondering from whence the wins, the draws and the tries might come after 80 minutes of the new Premiership campaign – it was Sam Vesty who pulled the strings for the visitors.

Vesty teed up right-wing Matt Carraro for the only try of the game with a lightning burst through a defensive gap of Gobi Desert dimensions in the 17th minute, while piling up the rest of his side's points with a conversion, four penalties and a long-range drop goal.

In his youth as a wicketkeeper for Leicestershire Seconds, the sometime England midfielder stumped Mohammad Azharuddin when India visited Grace Road for a World Cup warm-up game in 1999.

It was never going to be a cricket score for Vesty and his team on Tyneside, with three penalties from the right boot of his opposite number, Jimmy Gopperth, keeping the half-time gap to only four points.

In truth, though, the final margin of 13 was no great reflection of Bath's superiority. They enjoyed a stranglehold up front, and were in control at the set-pieces. All of which made it a good day for Sir Ian McGeechan as he set out on his 46th season in the oval-ball game.

"This morning I woke up thinking, 'Why am I doing this again, when other people seem to have an easier Saturday?' " confessed the good knight, now director of rugby at The Rec and ably assisted by Martin Haag and Brad Davis. "But when you've got the game through, and you're directly involved with players and people like this, and you come away and get a result like this, you know why you do it. It's a great feeling to be going home with."

Thanks to the backing of their wealthy chairman, Bruce Craig, Bath were able to charter a plane and fly up to Tyneside and come home with their win in the bag in one day – having, in the words of Alan Tait, "done a job" on the side coached by the man who was once centre of excellence for McGeechan with Scotland and the Lions.

In stark contrast to McGeechan, Tait has a dearth of resources all round as he strives to keep the Falcons on their decidedly shaky top-flight perch.

Not so long very along ago, the Tynesiders boasted such potent attacking threats as Mathew Tait, Matt Burke, Toby Flood, Tom May and Jamie Noon, plus Jonny Wilkinson and his left peg. Now, their only reliable source of points is the right boot of Gopperth, their Kiwi fly-half. Another nervy relegation battle beckons.

Newcastle: Penalties Gopperth 3. Bath: Try Carraro; Conversion Vesty; Penalties Vesty 4; Drop goal Vesty.

Newcastle: G Goosen (T Catterick, 74); L Fielden, L Eves (J Fitzpatrick, 66), J Helleur, A Tait; J Gopperth, C Pilgrim ( J Pasqualin, 62); G Shiells, R Vickers (J Graham, 74), A Wells (G Shiells, 51), J Hudson (capt), A van der Heijden (T Swinson, 51), M Wilson, W Welch (A Hogg, 62), R Mayhew.

Bath: N Abendanon ; M Carraro, D Hipkiss, B Williams, T Biggs ( J Cuthbert, 62); S Vesty, M Claassens (M McMillan, 70); D Flatman (N Catt, 62), P Dixon (R Batty, 74), K Palma-Newport, R Caldwell (D Attwood, 62), S Hooper (capt), B Skirving, C Fearns (G Mercer, 78), S Taylor.

Referee: M Fox (Leicestershire).