Newcastle, winners of the inaugural Premiership title in 1998 but bottom of the heap this time round, are 50 per cent out of the mire. Bristol's 29-18 victory over Cornish Pirates in the second leg of their Championship semi-final at the Memorial Ground yesterday was not enough to avoid an aggregate defeat and, as a result, one of only two contenders capable of replacing the Tynesiders in the elite league fell by the wayside.
The other contender, London Welsh, lost 24-17 to Bedford at Old Deer Park but prevailed 30-27 on aggregate, and as they insist they are in a position to meet the Premiership's stadium criteria and step up – they will switch from Richmond to Oxford according to current rumours – Newcastle's immediate future depends on whether the Exiles can win the home-and-away final against the Pirates, who cannot meet the stadium criteria, later this month.
Bristol, bolstered by new money if not exactly awash with it, had emerged as the most obvious promotion candidates: no one could argue that they would meet the stadium criteria and with some decent imported talent available to them – the Maori scrum-half Ruki Tipuna and the Samoan centre Fautua Otto – they fancied their chances of overturning the 21-point deficit with which they had saddled themselves by playing dumb in Penzance six days previously. If they could just create some broken-field situations for themselves, they might have a shot at it.
Those situations duly arose, but – irony of ironies – it was the Cornishmen who capitalised through two long-range individual tries. The first fell to the full-back Rob Cook, who gathered Tristan Roberts' chip for Otto and cruised in from 50 metres. The second, killer Pirates try was claimed by the eye-catching flanker Phil Burgess a quarter of an hour from time. Tipuna's break from a wheeled scrum looked threatening, but when Jon Goodridge, with two tries already to his name, failed to hold the ball on the right, Burgess sensed a parting of the waves and sailed all the way to the line.
At that moment, Bristol pretty much knew they were toast. Two points up at 17-15, they needed another 20 from somewhere, and even though their wings, George Watkins and Will Helu, managed late tries, a penalty from Cook sealed the deal for the visitors, who qualified for their second successive Championship final.
It was a bruising moment for Bristol, a great club fallen on difficult times. With last season's relegated club, Leeds, a long way off the pace and two of the more obvious title contenders, Bedford and the Pirates, either unwilling or unable to meet the promotion standards, this was a major opportunity. From now on, it will only get harder. If Newcastle drop down, they intend to make damned sure they bounce up again at the first opportunity. What is more, the investors behind the Pirates are moving ever closer to building a stadium in Cornwall that will underpin a meaningful challenge for elite status.