NEWCASTLE Falcons tightened their grip on the Championship’s top spot, reaching the midway stage of the regular season 17 points clear of the chasing pack.
Nottingham, Bedford and Leeds will attempt to eat into that tomorrow when they too hit the 11-game mark, but nobody in English rugby’s second tier has been able to halt the Falcons’ surge back to the Premiership.
Such has been the disparity between themselves and their opposition that Newcastle now routinely find themselves up against weakened outfits, with clubs ‘rotating’ their main men in anticipation of more winnable games.
Plymouth did just that last night with widespread changes resulting in nine starters aged 22 or under, but youthful exuberance seemed to work in their favour.
Less than three minutes had elapsed when the Devonians reduced Kingston Park to stunned silence, their patient phase play deservedly rewarded when No 8 Aaron Carpenter used a close-range ruck as a platform from which to scamper down the blind-side for a try in the left corner.
Fly-half Henry Slade made easy work of the touch-line conversion, but it only served to irritate the Falcons into action. Rolling back the years with a well-rehearsed tap-penalty move, the resulting momentum gave Jimmy Gopperth a simple three points from the tee to get his side off the mark.
Newcastle’s backs strove to keep their fingers warm on a bitter night by flinging the ball wide at every opportunity, and a steaming scrum was making similar gains as the dominant eight handed Gopperth a second pop at the posts.
The Kiwi slotted straight through from 45 metres out, and it was fascinating viewing as his side coped with something they have rarely faced this season – a challenge.
It was one they rose to, and the tempo was all theirs despite sub-zero temperatures inevitably leading to knock-ons on occasion. Mark Wilson buzzed around the back-row in another encouraging performance, and Scott MacLeod was again an assured focal point in the second-row.
Some of the running lines and offloads were irresistible, and a move totalling 30 passes and five breakdowns got them to within a whisker of the try-line as they changed the point of attack with every phase.
What it didn’t do was affect the scoreboard, even when Luke Fielden grubbered ahead and watched his kick bounce out off the corner post. From the resulting line-out, however, the trusty rolling maul delivered the all-important score as Wilson peeled from the base and sped over the line.
Gopperth added the touchline conversion for a 25th-minute lead and normal service was resumed, or so they thought.
Plymouth wing Thomas Bowen certainly didn’t get the memo, and showed fair upper-body strength to wriggle over for a try in the left corner despite the attentions of two tacklers.
Even with Scott Wilson on early for Grant Shiells Newcastle’s scrum was on top by some distance, with another huge shove handing Gopperth a third penalty for a 16-12 half-time lead.
The second half was always going to tell us a lot about the psychological make-up of the Premiership aspirants, who relied on Fielden to save their bacon when Alex Tait fumbled and Plymouth hacked through into the in-goal area.
Despite the danger being averted on that occasion the visitors did not miss out entirely with Slade’s long-range penalty reducing the gap to one, although Newcastle quickly surged away thanks to a marvellous team score.
Matt Thompson’s unlikely dab in behind the Plymouth defence forced the line-out from which Scott MacLeod pinched front ball, with a quick transfer through the hands seeing Alex Crockett feed Tait and then Fielden for a slick try in the right corner.
Gopperth’s fourth penalty extended the margin to eight, and it was almost 13 when Tongan replacement Suka Hufanga was hauled down centimetres short after Fielden’s blind-side pop.
The attacking intent was clear, and the introduction of Taiasina Tu’ifua gave them a more direct edge in their locker. Gopperth’s deft chip got them in behind the defence again, and when handed a penalty in the shadow of the posts they opted for the greater gains of an attacking scrum.
Three re-sets later they left empty-handed, but the same could not be said when they entered the final ten minutes in search of the bonus point.
Again it was from the line-out that they launched their scoring incursion, this time from 15 metres out down the left as off-the-top ball allowed Gopperth to put Samoan centre through a hole from five metres out.
Gopperth slotted the conversion, leaving them just one touch-down away from another maximum-point haul and with seven minutes left to find it.
Hufanga and Tu’ifua strove to seal the deal with a fleeting incursion down the right as Tait was bundled into touch within sight of the corner, and for the first time at home this season the fourth try had passed them by.
Still, it was an 11th league victory in a row, a decent test of resolve and nothing to lose any sleep over.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: A Tait, L Fielden, A Crockett (S Hufanga, 54), J Helleur, A Higgins, J Gopperth, W Fury; G Shiells (S Wilson, 36), M Thompson (M Mayhew, 73), J Hall, S Tomes (J Goode, 40), S MacLeod, C York (T Tu’ifua, 50), M Wilson, A Hogg (captain).
Sin-bin: J Hall (82 mins)
Scorers – Tries: M Wilson, L Fielden, J Helleur. Conversions: J Gopperth 2. Penalties: J Gopperth 4.
PLYMOUTH ALBION: R McAtee, L Warner, T Howley-Berridge, K Fisilau, T Bowen (J Arnott, 66), H Slade, R Cushion; L Cowan-Dickie (B Rogers, 73), T Cowan-Dickie (J Vickers, 22), L Fairbrother (D Morton, 64), B Beukeboom, H Tovey (I Ascroft-Leigh, 73), S Hocking (captain, R Nasiga, 54)), S Matavesi, A Carpenter.
Scorers – Tries: A Carpenter, T Bowen. Conversions: H Slade. Penalties: H Slade.
Referee: J Meredith