The 10 moments that defined the North East rugby year

Mark Smith selects 10 moments that shaped 2013 in the final Scrumdown of the year

Alex Livesey/Getty Images Jimmy Gopperth of Newcastle Falcons lifts the Championship trophy
Jimmy Gopperth of Newcastle Falcons lifts the Championship trophy

With another rugby year soon to be behind us, Scrumdown picks out the top 10 moments that have defined the oval-ball game during 2013.

FALCONS COME DOWN TO EARTH

WITH Newcastle Falcons having won all of their 21 games during the RFU Championship season and thumping everyone in their way, there were few who gave Bristol a prayer when they arrived at Kingston Park on April 20 for the final match of the regular season.

Buoyed by the arrival of former England and Scotland coach Andy Robinson, the West Country side produced a memorable performance in a 19-14 triumph, one which gave the Falcons a timely kick up the back side heading into the promotion play-offs.

“I don’t like losing,” thundered director of rugby Dean Richards afterwards, this despite his side still topping the table by 24 points.

ARENA OF DREAMS

DARLINGTON Mowden Park raised more than a few eyebrows on February 2 when they moved into the biggest dedicated club rugby ground in England.

Having sold their long-time Yiewsley Drive home to a housing company, a collapsed deal for another site left them in limbo after falling through at the 11th hour. The town’s 25,000-capacity arena, a white elephant since Darlington Football Club’s departure, came to the rescue in an unlikely move which seems to be working out just fine.

Thumping Stourbridge 62-7 in their first ‘home’ game there, the stadium is now established as their HQ with a sensible commercial and community strategy to match. Currently well placed in National Two North, the future seems bright.

GOPPERTH HANDS IN HIS NOTICE

LESS than a third of his way through a three-year deal, on March 4 Kiwi fly-half Jimmy Gopperth broke the news that he was leaving Newcastle Falcons for Leinster.

Despite prior denials that there was a get-out clause in his contract it transpired his exit strategy was very much a reality, but few could begrudge him a crack at Heineken Cup rugby after four seasons of toil at Kingston Park.

Insisting he remained committed to helping the Falcons achieve their promotion goal, Gopperth rushed from the birth of his son to play in their Championship semi-final victory at Bedford and remains a popular figure even after his departure. In truth, he has not been adequately replaced.

UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE

UNDERLINING their dominance of the student game, on March 25 Durham University lifted the British University and College Sports Cup for the second time in three seasons. Beating Cardiff Metropolitan University 26-17 at Twickenham in their third successive final, full-back Simon Hammersley scored the decisive try in a game which provided a fitting end to the reign of captain Josh Beaumont.

Son of England’s Grand Slam-winning skipper Bill, the lock-forward is now a professional with Sale Sharks after leading the Palatinates through three unbeaten seasons in the league under the canny tutelage of coach Alex Keay.

PROMOTION JOY

NEWCASTLE Falcons’ elongatedjourney back to the Premiership was finally completed on May 29 at Kingston Park, when tries from Ryan Shortland and Alex Tait secured a 49-33 aggregate triumph over Bedford.

Despite their emphatic domination of the regular season they had to go through the pantomine of knockout rugby to seal promotion, a transparent attempt to add artificial drama to a league which should have been decided much earlier.

“It is a rotten way to go up,” said director of rugby Dean Richards, as his team and supporters celebrated. “We have been in purgatory for two months, and whole point of this play-off system seems to be setting teams up to fail.”

COUNTY GLORY

YOU had to be up with the milkman to see it, but the early-morning alarm call was worth its while for Northumberland on May 26 when they hoisted the RFU County Championship Second Division Plate at Twickenham.

Trailing 10-0 against North Midlands in a 9.30am kick-off at HQ, the green, red and gold summoned up their fighting spirit and produced a monumental resurgence to claim a 45-10 triumph.

Captained magnificently by Jason Smithson, the Blaydon flanker insisted the victory went some way to compensating for the previous season’s relegation. He said: “We are a very proud county, so to have been promoted back into the top division and winning a final at Twickenham means a heck of a lot to us.”

WARRIOR SPIRIT

TRY as they might to play it down, Newcastle’s visit to Worcester Warriors on Saturday October 5 always had the tinge of a Premiership relegation battle about it.

As it was, for the second time of the season the Falcons produced an away performance of commendable efficiency; Mike Blair’s try and the boot of Rory Clegg delivering a 16-11 triumph which inflicted a massive psychological blow to a Worcester side still win-less at the bottom of the table.

“If you look at our squad we had 12 players who have come through our academy,” said Richards. “These guys have been given their chance, and they are taking it. They are driving the club and the team forward.”

THUNDER HIT BY NEIGHBOUR LOSS

LONG-TIME servant as a player and popular choice as head coach, on August 2 Kevin Neighbour broke the news that he was leaving Gateshead Thunder to start a new life in New Zealand. The Wallsend winger helped the club to their highest league placing in years by finishing third-bottom in Championship One, leaving with the well wishes of everybody connected with the club.

Papua New Guinean great Stanley Gene takes over on a part-time basis in an extension of Thunder’s ties with Hull Kingston Rovers, who already supply a number of players on dual-registration.

Where Gateshead will play next season remains up in the air, rumours of much closer ties with Newcastle Falcons gathering pace if the necessary reforms to the league structure are forthcoming.

YARM HIT THE TROPHY TRAIL

YARM School earned their slice of Twickenham magic by defeating Felsted to win the Daily Mail Schools Vase on March 23. Tries from Will Guthrie, Conor Hartigan and Zach Kibirige (pictured right) saw them battling back from a 10-0 deficit at the home of English rugby, the latter having already made a scoring debut for Newcastle Falcons.

England Under-18s cap Kibirige might have grabbed the headlines, but a fine team effort was due reward for coaches Stuart Hardy and Chris Webb as they watched captain Josh Jones lift the silverware.

THE WORLD IS WATCHING

NEWCASTLE secured its place as a 2015 Rugby World Cup venue on May 2 when the list of successful venues was announced, St James’ Park selected to host three games while Sunderland’s Stadium of Light missed out.

Benefiting from quality over quantity, the home of Newcastle United will stage the game between world champions New Zealand and Pacific rivals Tonga, as well as Scotland’s dates with South Africa and Samoa.

One sour note to the euphoria came in November with the announcement that the cheapest adult tickets would be an eye-watering £50 to sit in the Gods, but money-grabbing aside it promises to be a sporting carnival to galvanise the region’s enthusiasm for the greatest game on the planet.

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