Newcastle closing in on Europe

Newcastle 33 London Irish 28
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The Independent Online

Europe is the prize and how these two sides fought for every scrap of possession in the countdown to qualification for a place in next season's Heineken Cup. Newcastle gave too much of it away for their own good, though they just prevailed in a tense finish, with Irish gaining a bonus point thanks to Barry Everitt's seventh penalty in the sixth minute of stoppage time.

Although Newcastle outscored Irish by three tries to one and deserved victory, much as they sweated, the fourth try, and with it a precious bonus point would not come, so Irish stay fourth in the table and the Falcons move to within two points of them. Having picked up two bonus points with two tries in injury time against Sale on Sunday, one has to admire the Irish. They never give up. What a season they have enjoyed; and Europe will be all the better with them in it.

Newcastle, playing it fast and loose at every opportunity, had to beware the intercept chances they gave to the Irish midfield, and the constant threat of Irish's counter-attacking abilities that have surprised so many teams this season. And then there is the wonder of Everitt: the surprise of the season. One of only two Irish-born players in his side's starting line-up, how Everitt loves to kick. And how accomplished he is at it.

Two illegal tackles, the first by Va'aiga Tuigamala, the second by Richard Arnold, gave Everitt his first points and after offences at the ruck another two penalties. By the end of a fascinating half, Everitt had struck again. If the feet were with Irish, the hands were Newcastle's.

Playing by far the better and more constructive football, Newcastle fashioned two stunning tries to take a two-point lead in at the break. From a line-out on the left, Rob Devonshire won a ruck, the ball was moved swiftly to Jonny Wilkinson, who transferred to Jamie Noon in a flash for a score at the posts. With Newcastle trailing 10-15 as first-half stoppage time was reached, Michael Stephenson wrong- footed Gavin Pfister with a sumptuous dummy and raced 50 metres for a brilliant solo try.

Wilkinson converted both and opened the second period with a booming penalty from inside his own half. Newcastle then looked as if they had killed the game when Noon crossed for his second try. Wilkinson converted and slotted another penalty to make it 30-18.

However, back came Irish with Everitt's sixth penalty and a close-range try by Chris Sheasby, which you-know-who converted. Although Wilkinson made the game safe with his fourth penalty, it was impossible to discount Everitt's contribution.

Newcastle: Tries Noon 2, Stephenson; Conversions Wilkinson 3; Penalties Wilkinson 4. London Irish: Try Sheasby; Conversion Everitt; Penalties Everitt 7.

Newcastle: D Walder; M Stephenson, J Noon, V Tuigamala, L Botham; J Wilkinson (capt), H Charlton; G Graham, S Brotherstone, M Hurter, H Vyvyan, S Grimes, J Dunbar (P Lam, 58-67, A Mower, 75-77), R Devonshire, R Arnold (P Lam, 69).

London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley (B Venter, 56), J Bishop; B Everitt, D Edwards; N Hatley (D Wheatley, 51), R Kirke (N Drotske, 46), S Halford (R Hardwick, 46), R Strudwick (capt), J Fahrensohn, E Halvey, G Pfister (J Cockle, 64), C Sheasby.

Referee: T Spreadbury (RFU).