Understudy Walder fills in famously

N-G Dragons 6 - Newcastle 10
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The Independent Online

A filthy afternoon weather-wise was a suitable backdrop to a sporadically violent match which shredded both the nerves and the formbook. Ominously for the Welsh regions, enduring a hideous Heineken Cup weekend, the Dragons were outmuscled and completely out-thought by a Newcastle side on an unimpressive run of no wins in four in the Zurich Premiership and missing Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half.

A filthy afternoon weather-wise was a suitable backdrop to a sporadically violent match which shredded both the nerves and the formbook. Ominously for the Welsh regions, enduring a hideous Heineken Cup weekend, the Dragons were outmuscled and completely out-thought by a Newcastle side on an unimpressive run of no wins in four in the Zurich Premiership and missing Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half.

Taking Wilkinson's place, Dave Walder played the conditions to perfection. "Sensational," was the description from Rob Andrew, the Falcons' director of rugby. The Dragons, by contrast, were a massive disappointment.

Five successive victories in the Celtic League suggested they would do better than bend the knee to an admittedly gargantuan visiting pack. The sensational handling and running of Michael Owen in the second row were nowhere near enough to make up deficiencies in scrum and line-out.

The trite conclusion would be to question the contribution of the Dragons' head coach, Chris Anderson, who admits he is still coming to terms with the mysteries of the tight after a life in Australian rugby league. Indeed, Anderson took some blame, but specifically for the way he "built up" the match during the week. "We hurt ourselves a lot," he said. "The occasion got to us and, if anything, we tried too hard."

No Anglo-Welsh contest requires artificial impetus to turn tasty, but the line was overstepped on several occasions, some detected, others not. The chief miscreant, funnily enough, was an American, although Newcastle's lock Luke Gross spent a couple of years with Llanelli, so he is no stranger to the darker tribal tendencies. Gross was sent off for bringing a knee up into the jaw of the Dragons' lock Ian Gough in an off the ball brawl 26 minutes into the second half. For his part, Gough was sent to the sin-bin, but was too busy getting treatment to a bloodied mouth to witness his yellow card.

Gross was last night suspended for four weeks for fighting. Both Owen and Phil Dowson, the Newcastle No 8, may be at the mercy of an independent citing commissioner today for punches in separate incidents missed by the officials but picked up on television. Dowson, an England Sevens player of great promise, was sent off at Bath earlier in the season and banned for seven days.

It needed a cool head to plot a path through the mayhem. Walder was ably assisted by Colin Charvis, recently downgraded from Wales captain to vice-captain but in no way diminished as a player, particularly when the fur is flying. Thursday morning's announcement of Wilkinson's hiatus with a haematoma came too late for the match programme, which eulogised the England captain as a "tremendous tackler, whose spot-on technique should be watched by all youngsters".

Not yesterday, as it turned out, though it was doubtful if Jason Forster and friends in the Dragons' back row would have been able to make Wilkinson chew the large cuds of Gwent mud they had probably dreamed of.

The pitch was not quite in danger of merging with the nearby Usk, but it was certainly treacherous, which made the Dragons' early tactic of giving the ball plenty of air entirely questionable. Ceri Sweeney kicked a 13th minute penalty to cancel out Matt Burke's opening effort, but the Dragons' shortcomings were evident inside the opening quarter when both a line-out throw and a scrum put-in came to nought in the Newcastle 22.

Charvis must have impressed the watching Wales coach, Mike Ruddock, who was in charge for the Dragons' inaugural season last year. Not so Kevin Morgan, the full-back recently recalled to the national squad.

After 38 minutes, Morgan unaccountably tracked half the width of his in-goal area instead of clearing his lines, and Mike McCarthy charged him down for what proved to be the only try. Burke converted for 10-3, then in first-half added time Sweeney chipped over a penalty for Newcastle dropping a scrum.

That was it in scoring terms, and after the interval it was as useful to ignore the ball as keep your eye on it. The Dragons realised too late they should be kicking for position, and Newcastle got into an administrative tizzy with injuries to their front row. Overall, the traditionally-slanted chants of "Newport, Newport" were firmly stuck in the locals' throats.

Newport Gwent Dragons: K Morgan; G Wyatt, P Montgomery, S Tuipulotu, H Luscombe (N Brew, 70); C Sweeney, G Cooper (G Baber, 80); R Snow (A Black, 57), S Jones (J Richards, 70), R Thomas (C Anthony, 57), I Gough, M Owen, J Ringer, R Bryan (R Beattie, 70), J Forster (capt).

Newcastle: M Burke; T May, J Noon, M Tait, M Stephenson; D Walder, J Grindal (H Charlton, 52); I Peel (capt; M Hurter, 40; Isaacson, 75), J Isaacson (M Thompson, 40), M Ward (Peel, 52), L Gross, S Grimes, M McCarthy (S Sititi, 59), P Dowson, C Charvis.

Referee: D Courtney (Ireland).

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