NEWCASTLE Falcons very nearly received a short, sharp shock on Saturday – James Short scoring a late try, Jake Sharp converting and the home side coming within a whisker of pinching a place in the British and Irish Cup final.
Looking unflustered and in control for the majority of the afternoon, a moment of madness from Jordi Pasqualin threw the game wide open when the result seemed to have already been placed beyond all doubt.
The replacement scrum-half’s contribution must rank as one of the shortest appearances ever in a Newcastle shirt, coming on as a 73rd-minute replacement and being sent from the field after less than five seconds.
Tugging back opposite number Darryl Veenendaal as he raced down the left, the former Gloucester man was dispatched to the sin-bin – prompting a chaotic climax in which all structure was jettisoned in favour of sevens-style anarchy.
Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards, whose side will meet Leinster in the final at Kingston Park on Friday, May 17, said: “For 70-odd minutes we were in total control and I had brought on my entire bench because it looked like we had done the job.
“All of a sudden we were forced to put guys out of position and it almost cost us.”
That possibility reared its head almost straight from the sin-binning, Saracens’ dual-registered wing Short chasing a grubber in behind to score in the left corner.
Still the Falcons were eight points ahead, but there was yet more drama when home lock Mike Howard forced his rangy frame over the try-line down the right – Newcastle struggling to contain a Bedford side they could meet again in the Championship play-off final.
Richards admitted: “The floodgates opened, and it was a worry.
“However, it is not something we are going to panic about, because for the overwhelming majority of the afternoon we were in total control.
“Our defence coped during the times when Bedford had possession and field position and they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.”
All the late drama belied the slowest of starts on the famously sloping Goldington Road pitch, both teams taking their time to get motoring.
That was in no small part down to the visitors’ containing defence, mopping up Bedford’s early pressure as the Blues tried and failed to find a chink in the armour.
Returning lock James Hudson – a late addition to the side – rose high to pilfer prime attacking ball at the line-out when the hosts opted for touch rather than a pop at goal.
When they chose to go for the three the results were little better as fly-half Myles Dorrian twice fired wide. Jimmy Gopperth, admittedly from much wider out, was also off target, but with his side gradually playing more in the Bedford half the impasse was eventually broken on 36 minutes with a straightforward penalty from in front.
That was repeated from near-identical range with the final kick of the half for a 6-0 lead, and it looked as if everything had been decided just three minutes after the resumption when the margin became 13.
Much of that was again down to Gopperth, the Kiwi’s line-break doing the damage in an accomplished all-round display as Jonny Golding used a close-range ruck as a platform from which to launch himself over the line.
Gopperth converted from the right, and that seemed to be that as the Falcons rolled on their replacements.
Pasqualin’s indiscretion added unnecessary drama to a hitherto comfortable afternoon, home skipper Darren Fox already in the sin-bin in yet another show of indiscipline from a habitual offender.
Dorrian’s penalty gave them a foot-hold, but Noah Cato’s straightforward return of a 22 drop-out for a try in the right corner had meant even Bedford’s late rally was still not enough.
Newcastle now host Leinster on the same night the Irish province face Stade Francais in Dublin for the Amlin Challenge Cup.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: T Catterick, N Cato, A Powell (M Tait, 73), J Helleur, A Tait, J Gopperth (J Hodgson, 73), W Fury (J Pasqualin, 73); J Golding, M Mayhew (R Vickers, 63), O Tomaszczyk (S Wilson, 50), S MacLeod, J Hudson (C del Fava, 63), M Wilson (O Stedman, 63), W Welch (captain), A Hogg.
Sin-bin: J Pasqualin (74 mins).
Falcons scorers - Tries: J Golding, N Cato. Conversions: J Gopperth. Penalties: J Gopperth 2.
BEDFORD BLUES: B Ransom, J Stephenson, B Burke (O Dodge, 58), M Atkinson, J Short, M Dorrian (J Sharp, 68), L Baldwin (D Veenendaal, 60); D Fearn (P Boulton, 60), N Cochrane (S Spurling, 46), D Seal, M Howard, P Tupai (D Barrell, 60), G Gillanders, D Fox (captain, T Armes, 72), N Fenton-Wells.
Sin-bin: D Fox (62 mins).
Bedford scorers - Tries: J Short, M Howard. Conversions: J Sharp. Penalties: J Sharp.
Referee: M Patton (Ireland).