Seely's opening salvo sinks Newcastle

Northampton 38 Newcastle 7
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The Independent Online

Perhaps Rob Andrew would have been happier at Reading after all. The Newcastle director of rugby was first to point out the inequity of playing back-to-back semi-finals at the Madejski Stadium, home of London Irish. After a five-try Northampton whirlwind sent the Falcons spinning out of the cup, Andrew had to swallow the sight of Northampton going through to meet the Irish on neutral turf at Twickenham

The absence with a hamstring injury of Dave Walder, scorer of Newcastle's winning try in last year's final, made the well-being of Jonny Wilkinson, on the face of it even more crucial. Wilkinson did not train until Wednesday after picking up a calf strain during England's defeat in France, but he was on hand to run through his usual extensive pre-match routine, which was given added emphasis by the high wind that delayed the kick-off by an hour. In the event Northampton's powers-that-be correctly predicted an abating of the gale and by 6pm the ground, floodlit and full, was ready.

It was tough to know if the same could be said of Wilkinson. "Give him some of the French treatment,'' shouted one Northampton supporter, with national loyalties set aside. The outside half's first swing of the boot was a drop kick that fluttered harmlessly away from the posts after 12 minutes, and he could do nothing to stem a rampaging Northampton effort that left the home side 33 unanswered points to the good by half-time.

Wilkinson's missed drop was in response to Northampton's opening salvo of a try by No 8 Grant Seely, converted by Paul Grayson, who then added a 45-metre penalty. Wilkinson drew jeers when a penalty kick meant for touch instead went dead. It was the holders' last sight of their opponent's 22 for some time.

Three tries and nine minutes later, the semi-final was all but over. First, Matt Dawson's long pass sent Peter Jorgensen in at the right-hand corner. Then Seely got his second at the same spot, prompting a massed Newcastle huddle behind the posts. But the talking to from Pat Lam, who captained Northampton to the Heineken Cup, had no immediate effort.

Grayson banged over another three points after Tom May's late tackle on Seely, then strong running Northampton struck again with right wing Craig Moir going over from Jorgensen's pass.

Hugh Vyvyan's stint in the sin bin for playing the ball on the floor in the 20th minute did not help Newcastle's cause. Northampton evened up that score when Budge Pountney went to the cooler nine minutes into the second half. But apart from the yellows, all the Saints' cards were aces. Their coach, Wayne Smith, had prompted raised eyebrows by dropping his front rowers, Tom Smith and Steve Thompson. It was a powerful psychological ploy that produced all the intended passion. Robbie Morris and Dan Richmond worked their socks off before making way for their illustrious understudies after the interval.

As time ticked away Newcastle could make few dents in Northampton's brickwall defence. Symptomatic of their ill-focused efforts was a spill of the ball as Gary Armstrong attempted to usher a driving maul over the line.

There was to be no repeat of Harlequins' fightback earlier in the day with Pountney returning to lead some quite outstanding Northampton tackling. Jorgensen triumphantly lifted the seige, by battering through for his second try and a chip and chase by Michael Stephenson notwithstanding, the Saints fans cheered a third domestic cup final, with a new name destined for the trophy.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, P Jorgensen, J Leslie (M Tucker, 69), B Cohen; P Grayson (J Brooks, 58), M Dawson (I Vass, 74); R Morris (T Smith h-t), D Richmond (S Thompson, 50), M Stewart (Morris, 72), J Ackermann, O Brouzet, A Blowers (M Soden, 71), G Seely, B Pountney (capt)

Newcastle: L Botham; M Stephenson, J Noon, T May, V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong; G Graham, M Thompson (N Makin, 64), M Hurter, H Vyvyan, F Grimes, E Taione, P Lam (capt), A Mower

Referee: T Spreadbury (Bristol).