Saracens 19 Newcastle 22: Bell tolls for Saracens as high Noon strikes

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The Independent Online

Newcastle left Vicarage Road in a festive mood after taking their first away win in the Premiership for 13 months. A late try by Jamie Noon brought a thrilling match watched by 17,223 Saracens' highest crowd for 10 years to a pulsating conclusion.

A decade ago, when 19,800 crammed the stands, the opponents were also Newcastle. The home team won, but the Falcons were crowned champions.

Yesterday, Newcastle made all the early running. They were more aggressive and appeared better able to control a greasy ball at pace. The home team did launch a couple of attacks but unforced errors brought premature ends to promising moves.

"Our first half performance was absolute tripe," said Alan Gaffney, Saracens' director of rugby.

It seemed that every time Newcastle went wide they had Saracens' defence at full stretch. That was perfectly illustrated when Mathew Tait, playing at fullback, the position many would like to see him fill for England, opened the scoring. He entered the line, latched on to a pass from a Test colleague, Toby Flood, and stepped inside and out to leave Brent Russell, Saracens' "Pocket Rocket", looking more like Stephenson's Rocket.

When the Saracens hooker, Fabio Ongaro, was sent to the sin-bin after slipping a hand into a ruck, the Falcons struck again. This time Flood was put over from a fine offload by the blind-side flanker, Brent Wilson. Jonny Wilkinson missed the conversion, the first of three missed kicks in the first half which cost eight points.

Conditions were not great, but they had nothing to do with Saracens' lack of inventiveness. By the close of the half they had only collected two penalties, from an out-of-form Gordon Ross who was replaced by Glen Jackson at half time. To compound their woes, Saracens conceded a late penalty which kept Newcastle a couple of scores in front.

Saracens clawed back a penalty through Jackson early in the second half and thereafter they redoubled their efforts. A stunning midfield break by the All Black lock Chris Jack led to the left wing, Rodd Penney, going close, but replays indicated he was held up.

The decision after 90 seconds of deliberation did go Saracens' way six minutes later, when their captain and scrum-half, Neil de Kock, wriggled through a tangle of bodies.

Newcastle hammered upfield and came up just short of the Sarries' line. Jack turned miracle worker and conjured up a vital turnover, and when Hugh Vyvyan then finished off a series of sweeping assaults in the 78th minute the home fans thought that was it.

But Newcastle had something left in the tank. They pressed again, Wilkinson popping up a perfect ball for Noon, who barrelled over. Once more the video referee was needed; once more he said yes.

As desperately as they threw themselves at the Falcons' defences, Saracens could not make a dramatic late breakthrough and Newcastle's unhappy away run was over.

Saracens: Tries De Kock, Vyvyan; Penalties Ross 2, Jackson. Newcastle: Tries Tait, Flood, Noon; Conversions Wilkinson 2; Penalty Wilkinson.

Saracens: B Russell; R Haughton, K Sorrell, A Powell, R Penney; G Ross (G Jackson, 40), N de Kock (capt); K Yates, F Ongaro(A Kyriacou, 67), C Johnston (C Visagie, 71), H Vyvyan, C Jack, K Chesney, D Seymour, P Gustard.

Newcastle: M Tait; T May (O Phillips, 80), J Noon (capt), T Flood, J Rudd; J Wilkinson, J Grindal (H Charlton, 75); J Golding (M Ward, 74), A Long (M Thompson, 67), C Hayman, A Perry, M Sorenson, B Wilson, B Woods (E Williamson, 44), G Parling.

Referee: S Davey (Sussex).

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