NEWCASTLE Falcons were left counting the cost of their latest Aviva Premiership loss, with lock-forward Andrew van der Heijden now a major doubt for Friday night’s relegation showdown with Worcester.
The Kiwi lock left the field after half-an-hour of Saturday’s six-try defeat at Franklin’s Gardens with what had seemed a fairly routine blood-bin.
But there was no quick patch-up as head coach Alan Tait revealed: “It is a really bad cut which goes all the way down the cheekbone, and it will be touch-and-go as to whether or not he makes it on Friday.
“The doctor refused permission for him to go back on because it was so bad, and we will have to see how it responds during the week.”
Van der Heijden’s withdrawal was a further blow to a Newcastle line-out struggling along without suspended captain James Hudson against a rampant Saints team bolstered by the return of England’s Courtney Lawes from World Cup duty. Hudson will return for Friday after a month on the sidelines, but he joins a team still picking up the pieces from their latest loss.
Former Falcons hero Tom May scored two well-taken tries inside 20 minutes, but the half-time lead was restricted to just six points as three penalties and a drop-goal from Jimmy Gopperth reined in the Heineken Cup finalists.
The second-half was one-way traffic as two tries apiece from World Cup wingers Vasily Artemyev and Chris Ashton – of Russian and English fame respectively – underlined the Saints’ supremacy.
Tait could only admire the slick inter-play of the hosts against a Newcastle side who were lacking no effort, but were badly short on inspiration.
He said: “You come down to these places with a full house and a team full of internationals, and there was always a feeling they would crank it up a bit.
“At half-time the boys were in it and they always enjoy playing in that kind of atmosphere. I said to them that this is test match level rugby in all but name, and that you have got to stick in there and do the same again for the second half.
“We had to lift our game and show them what we could bring to the table, but unfortunately we misfired. We had no go-forward ball and the set-piece did not function properly, so we were pinned in our own half and making mistakes.
“Fair play to Northampton because I thought they were outstanding, and it was something for our lads to learn. Just their line-speed, their hits and everything – they are a top-class team and they have stars in every position. We know what that is like to play against now, and we have a really short turnaround ahead of what is a massive game on Friday night.
“We have got to focus straightaway on preparing for the Worcester game, and put Northampton to bed. They were the better team on the day, but we need to move on.”
Insisting it is too early to label the match between the league’s two unfancied teams as a relegation decider, the head coach said: “We know it is a game we have to win to prevent them getting further ahead of us. The players know how big it is, and we will just crack on with our preparation.
“Worcester are a stuffy side with a lot of old heads, and you know what you get from a team coached by Phil Larder.
“They know that we like to go out and play some rugby, and they will try to be strong in defence to prevent us from doing that. They will try to make it a frustrating night, and they have a kicker in Andy Goode who can pin you back in your own half and keep the score-board moving.
“We have to be patient, and come into the game with an intensity that upsets them.”
SCORING: Falcons – Penalties: J Gopperth 4. Drop-goals: J Gopperth. Saints – Tries: T May 2, V Artemyev 2, C Ashton 2. Conversions: R Lamb 3, S Myler. Penalties: R Lamb 2.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: B Foden, C Ashton, J Clarke (S Armstrong, 63), T May, V Artemyev, R Lamb (S Myler, 67), L Dickson (M Roberts, 59); S Tonga’uiha (A Waller, 62), D Hartley (captain, M Haywood, 63), B Mujati (P Doran Jones, 63), S Manoa, C Lawes (M Sorenson, 59), C Clark (R Wilson, 59), T Wood, P Dowson.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: J Manning, L Eves, C Uys, J Helleur (A Tait, 54), R Sheriffe, J Gopperth (captain, G Goosen, 66), C Pilgrim (J Pasqualin, 56); G Shiells (A Wells, 56), J Graham (M Mayhew, 64), E Murray (D Frazier, 72), T Swinson, A van der Heijden (G Townson, 31), M Wilson (R Pennycook, 59), W Welch, A Hogg.
Referee: JP Doyle Attendance: 13,386