If the DVD of Newcastle Falcons’ season was ever to hit our shelves, it should be placed in the horror section and titled ‘Thank God for Worcester’.
For the continuing travails of the Sixways side seem to be the only thing keeping them in the Premiership right now.
With three games to go, the gap between the Falcons and the drop spot stands at seven points which, in reality, should still be enough for them to come back in September for another crack at the top flight.
Better things may be promised round the corner and Newcastle can rightly point to a promising crop coming through, but the reality of the here and now is that a 13th league defeat in a row extended their worst ever Premiership losing streak and leaves them six points worse off than the same stage of their 2012 relegation season. Poor pitches and weather conditions had all been cited as reasons for conservative and losing rugby but, on a sun-baked day in Reading on a snooker table of a field, they were three tries down and flailing for the life-raft inside 15 minutes.
By half-time they had shipped six, and even a bizarre second half in which no points were scored by either side could not rescue arguably their worst 40 minutes of rugby in recent memory. It was just ragged in every department – the only saving grace that the deluge of points subsided after the interval.
Dean Richards quite rightly made no attempt to justify his side’s abysmal start, the director of rugby saying: “That is the worst first half I have seen, probably ever.
“In terms of intensity, composure – everything really.
“To be three tries down inside 19 or so minutes, even we got it back to 19-12 we didn’t understand how to control the game. We allowed them another three scores before half-time, and it was incredible. I have never seen anything like it before.”
Revealing straight talking in the dressing room, he added: “It was made perfectly clear what my thoughts were on the game, and despite the effort and endeavour of the second half we still did not have the composure you want from your team.”
Topsy Ojo’s interception of a wastefully-lobbed pass handed the Exiles the field position for their first try, eventually scored in the left corner as former Falcon Andrew Fenby reached an arm out of a tackle for the first of what would turn into a hat-trick of tries.
Flamboyant Australian James O’Connor converted from the touchline, Rory Clegg slotting a straightforward penalty for Newcastle but dropping a clanger from the restart as his attempted clearance was charged down.
Centre Fergus Mulchrone mopped up the loose ball for the simplest of tries, converted by O’Connor – Newcastle restricting their own scoring to penalties as Clegg slotted a second from further out.
Having withstood an attack by holding up the Exiles over the try-line, a five-metre scrum in the left corner brought depressingly-predictable consequences when a second-man play put Fenby through a midfield hole for his second and his team’s third try. Clegg’s third and fourth penalties ensured the margin stood at just seven, wing duo Ryan Shortland and Sinoti Sinoti at long last finding some running in the wide channels but failing to turn it into anything more meaningful.
London Irish were having no such problems, ruthless attack and ineffective defence allowing Eammon Sheridan to pump his legs for the four-try bonus point.
Blair Cowan picked Warren Fury’s pocket for a midfield turnover which delivered Fenby’s hat-trick, the Kingston Park old-boy running 50 metres to the line without a finger being laid on him. Only heroic chasing from Mark Wilson denied Ojo a try as he chased a grubber to the in-goal, but the interval deficit was increased to 40-12 when Gerard Ellis wriggled over in the right corner.
“London Irish were playing without any pressure, and it showed,” said Richards.
“There was a distinct lack of focus and attention to detail from us, and some of the boys seem to think they are safe already. You cannot think that in any way, shape or form.”
Richards threw young bucks Joel Hodgson, Scott Wilson and George McGuigan on at half-time in search of some dynamism, but despite the improved offering thereafter the horse had well and truly bolted.
In the week that head coach Peter Russell announced his impending departure for “personal reasons” the Kingston Park management may already have their get-out in responding to calls for change at the top. Repeats of this collapse can certainly not be permitted, whoever is calling the tune.
Hodgson at least gave it a bash with a show-and-go which took out two defenders and put him in behind, his floated pass going to ground but offering a glimpse of the possibilities.
The renewed spark saw Jamie Helleur breaking the line and feeding Shortland for a potential try which was turned down by the video referee, both sides emptying their benches earlier than usual with the result already a formality.
Newcastle turned down a kickable penalty in search of greater gains and botched the resulting line-out, repeating the same mistake within a minute as the Exiles cleared easily.
Throughout all of this their small band of travelling followers kept the flags waving and the chants coming, despite what must have been a massive temptation to head for the exits. The players, to their credit, kept trying, even if it was without shape and largely reliant on the individual exuberance of Sinoti and Hodgson.
How Richards can consider allowing the latter to leave the club this summer is one of many questions that need answering, and at least the tide of tries against had abated.
Hodgson’s sublime cross-kick to Shortland was within a whisker of putting the winger away, but for some super Irish scramble, and for all that they dominated the closing minutes Newcastle still did not manage a single touch-down.