This might have been Newcastle Falcons’ eighth Premiership defeat on the bounce, but few who left the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday evening had any doubts about their ability to remain a Premiership entity.
The club’s pre-season rhetoric had understandably centred on trying to win every game and finish as high as they possibly can, but the realists in the room knew the short-term goal for the RFU Championship holders was remaining in the league they were relegated from in 2012.
To that end they are holding up OK, the 11-point buffer between themselves and Worcester restored thanks to a hard-earned losing bonus point at Harlequins and the Warriors’ failure to leave Northampton with anything.
What is more, Dean Richards’ side showed tangible progression in terms of how to play with the wind at their backs, and offered more in the way of attack than they have done since their last Premiership win all the way back on October 27.
Going 12-0 down before the half-hour and staring down the barrel of another hammering, they chipped back with three penalties and even had the lead on 70 minutes when Alex Tait ploughed a furrow to the try-line from Ryan Shortland’s bobbling offload in the left corner.
A pair of Ben Botica penalties quickly extinguished that flame, but had you offered the visitors a losing bonus point before kick-off they would have been back up the M1 before you could blink.
“It was there for the taking in some respects, but I thought it was a really entertaining game,” said Richards, who was warmly received by the Harlequins’ supporters who have not let the manner of his departure cloud over the foundations laid during his time in charge at the London club.
“I got a great reception, and a lot of people were saying welcome home.
“I am from around Leicester and I am living near Newcastle, so that was a bit bizarre, but the people were great with me and I appreciated that.” Some eyebrows had been raised at a team selection which saw Tait moved from a full-back position in which he has excelled, swapped with Noah Cato to play on the wing as the former Northampton man dropped back to No 15.
In the end it worked well enough, but the partnership with most potential seems Jamie Helleur and Gonzalo Tiesi as the midfield duo delivered a balanced midfield mixture which saw the Samoan getting over the gain-line and the Argentine quietly but efficiently kicking the corners.
Helleur’s barnstorming running allowed Kiwi Shortland to form the arrowhead by coming in from his wing on a tracking line, a rampant Newcastle scrum providing another steady source of go-forward.
Rob Vickers’ conversion to loose-head prop may have been conceived partially through necessity, but the one-time hooker just delivers every week now with No 1 on his back and seems to have found his true calling.
The line-out was similarly profitable as Scott MacLeod picked Harlequins’ pockets, although the early running was the Londoners’ when Ollie Lindsay-Hague exploited numbers out wide to score the afternoon’s first try down the right.
With Will Welch sin-binned for pulling down a maul, Sam Smith’s blind-side break and Botica’s touchline conversion made it 12-0, the visitors registering their first points on 28 minutes through Rory Clegg’s well-flighted penalty.
“Quins executed their first-half tries really well, even though one was pretty soft from our side, and when you go two scores down against a side like that it is always difficult to come back,” said Richards, whose side improved markedly thereafter, Clegg slotting a pair of penalties and seeing a further two bounce back off the left post. “Playing with the wind in the second half played into our hands a little bit, and for the first time we were able to use it properly.
“That was nice, but you have to give full credit to Quins.
“They were a point down with 10 minutes to go, but they never die and they got there in the end.”
Finding room for improvement despite the good feeling surrounding their exertions, he added: “The most disappointing thing was that we got ourselves in front, and didn’t quite get it.
“Every point is well received, but I wanted four and all the boys wanted four as well.
“The thing that concerned me more was our defence of the driving maul.
“We were competing rather than defending it, the decision-making there was a little bit awry but on the whole I thought the boys did really well. The scrum was outstanding, and that was very pleasing.” Opposite number Conor O’Shea was quick to highlight the resilience of his Harlequins side despite being without Kiwi talisman Nick Evans, their four England players and a raft of injured stars.
The Irishman stated: “There is a never-say-die attitude that you can’t buy when the threat is put to this team, and we are doing what we need to do during this window when guys are away on internationals and out injured. We know we made mistakes in our shape, style and structure, but mentally we dug our way through it. Newcastle played the right way during the second half, and could have won it.
“Dean Richards, John Wells and Peter Russell I know will do an unbelievable job up there.
“They will obviously be disappointed and frustrated with not winning here, but they know what they are doing.”
Half-way through a month in which Newcastle face four of the Premiership’s top-five teams, it gets a little easier for Richards’ men with Northampton and Leicester visiting Kingston Park on back-to-back Sundays.
He said: “It has not been the easiest of years but, in saying that, the boys that went out at Harlequins were outstanding.
“They wore their hearts on their sleeves, and I thought they put in a good performance.
“We have had a difficult time with injuries when you think we have had four players retiring this season alone, we have a lot of long-term injuries and we have been hampered a lot.
“Our pitch has been difficult, but it is what it is and we have just got to accept that.
“The one thing you do know against Northampton and Leicester is that they will have packs who are competitive, and we need to be on our mettle against those boys.”
One thing the Falcons undeniably now have is a bit of wind in their sails, another point further ahead of Worcester and another game closer to the finishing line.
Niggling questions still remain over certain aspects of selection, largelyin the back-row where captainWelch seems an odd fit at blind-side flanker.
The form of Andy Saull as the specialist forager makes the England Saxons cap virtually undroppable at open-side, while Welch arguably lacks the big ball-carrying threat at six for the classic back-row balance.
That is off-set by gains at the breakdown, and both Richards and Wells know the back-row area inside-out.
Then there is the question of when to introduce rugby-league convert Lee Smith to a back-line short of tries, and where does England Under-20s wing Zach Kibirige fit in?
But at least we can now debate these issues from a position of relative security.