Newcastle and Leinster got their Heineken European Cup Pool Six match underway at the third time of asking, though with much of Leeds and the surrounding area shrouded in thick fog, it was a mercy that Headingley was mist free. Another postponement would have been too much to bear. Quite how Rob Andrew would have taken that eventuality might have heralded some more mist of the red variety.
The Newcastle director of rugby was quite outspoken after the re-arranged match was called off an hour before kick-off at Kingston Park on Sunday. "Leinster had no intention of playing and they put unfair pressure on the referee to get it called off," he said.
However, Matt Williams, the Leinster coach, initially refused to be drawn into a slanging match, but afterwards said: "There was no sportsmanship on Newcastle's part and their off-field actions were deplorable. I always have my players' best interests at heart. In my view, the correct decision was made."
It is as well for the tournament that the implications of Sunday's farce won't go further than Newcastle ceding ground advantage, though the cost of switching to Leeds also included £60,000 in refunds, corporate monies and gate receipts. Having to bear that little lot, Newcastle were not at all pleased; and they were even less enamoured when the organisers, European Rugby Cup, demanded that the North East club foot the £5,000 bill for staging the game in Yorkshire. Andrew's response was to declare that his team would not play if they had to pay. The ERC were wise to back down on that one.
As Leinster have already qualified for the quarter-finals and the other three in the group cannot, there was no griping from Newport or Toulouse about Newcastle fielding weakened teams in their last two group matches. Though the side Newcastle will take to Rodney Parade on Friday is almost certain to have an unfamiliar look to it.
Against this background of fulminating disagreement we had a more-than decent game of rugby, with a tremendously exciting finish though sadly there were only 1,146 of the faithful there to witness it. Leinster were disrupted by the loss of Nathan Spooner with a rib injury after 23 minutes, by when Denis Hickie had scored the opening try which Spooner converted. Newcastle came straight back with a delightful try by Tom May, which Jonny Wilkinson converted and, with Wilkinson and Brian O'Meara exchanging penalties, that fittingly made honours even, 10-10 at the break.
When Spooner's replacement, Ben Willis, easily stepped out of Wilkinson's unconvincing tackle, for a soft try, it seemed as if Newcastle might fold; especially as the Irish forwards appeared to be getting the upper hand. But despite the constant pressure Newcastle fought back splendidly. They camped deep in the Leinster half for long periods, and though Leinster were guilty of killing the ball, which led to the sin-binning of Trevor Brennan, Newcastle kept plugging away until eventually Va'aiga Tuigamala split the Leinster defence with a high-speed dummy to cross wide on the left.
To Newcastle's dismay, Wilkinson's conversion attempt slid tantalisingly wide, so Leinster survived with their record intact. The picks of their side were Malcolm O' Kelly, the front row of their hard-working pack and the centre, Shane Horgan. With a trip to Toulouse to come at the weekend and the prospect of a home tie in the quarters, Leinster cannot be discounted. But they looked far from European Champions last night.
Newcastle: Tries May, Tuigamala; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalty Wilkinson. Leinster: Tries Hickie, Willis; Conversions Spooner, O' Meara; Penalty O' Meara.
Newcastle: D Walder; M Stephenson, J Noon, T May, V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson (G Maclure, 52-68), H Charlton; M Ward, B Balshen, G Graham (M Peel, 62), H Vyvyan (C Hamilton, 69), S Grimes, J Dunbar (R Arnold, 62), R Devonshire, P Lam (capt).
Leinster: G Dempsey; G D'Arcy, B O'Driscoll, S Horgan, D Hickie; N Spooner (B Willis 23), B O'Meara; R Corrigan (capt), S Byrne, P Wallace, L Cullen, M O'Kelly, T Brennan, K Gleeson, V Costello.
Referee: G Simmonds (Wales).Reuse content