Newcastle Falcons ended 2013 on a downbeat note, emerging with only a losing bonus from their fifth successive league game and leaving themselves in danger of being sucked into another Premiership relegation battle.
Noah Cato’s 60th-minute touchdown at least delivered their first league try in exactly two months, but next Friday’s visit of Sale now assumes major significance as Dean Richards’ charges look to keep the buffer between themselves and the drop zone.
A side without a Premiership win since October 27 showed plenty of attacking ambition from the off, Noah Cato and Alex Tait linking well on the counter and looking to offload out of contact.
The swirling Kingston Park wind kept both sets of kickers on their toes, Wasps’ pre-match attempts to master the vagaries of the swirl coming to nought as Andy Goode’s first punt out of hand wobbled lamely up the field.
It was never going to be an evening of sevens-style extravagance, Newcastle’s rolling maul setting the platform for repeated one-out runners to barrel over the gain-line. Fed by Chris Pilgrim, a late addition due to Warren Fury’s illness, the Birkenhead-born half-back pushed a high early tempo.
Mark Wilson, another last-minute inclusion, motored enthusiastically across the ground, the wind playing havoc with the line-out as both hookers toiled to keep a straight throw.
Even routine tasks like clearing the base of a ruck were proving tricky, Pilgrim’s charged-down box kick in the shadow of his own posts delivering the opening try on 13 minutes when No 8 Sam Jones pounced on the loose ball.
Goode converted, Newcastle seemingly unperturbed as they assumed the front foot in the scrum and continued their barrage of back-row and midfield carries.
As so often this season it was turning it into points which proved tricky, Wasps likewise as Goode slipped over in the act of trying to slot a penalty on the quarter mark.
The Londoners’ full-back Elliot Daly, one of the brightest young attackers in the English game, had Jamie Helleur scurrying back to ground the ball in a try-saving intervention, the home side failing to maximise the wind at their backs for the second week in succession.
Will Welch, back in at open-side flanker, kept things neat and tidy around the ruck, but their visitors had by far the greater back-line synergy as runners cut pre-planned angles to isolate tacklers and exploit space out wide.
Extending their lead to 10-0 through Goode’s 35th-minute penalty, they ended the first half on the back foot as the Falcons regained their attacking stride. First Cato, then Alex Tait, then James Fitzpatrick had a dabble – the upshot being a wayward Phil Godman penalty as the gale pulled it left.
The Scottish veteran, tidy operator though he is, has so far failed to make a mark on the No 10 shirt vacated by Jimmy Gopperth last summer. This was a night tailor-made for the now-Leinster marksman, but his former employers were struggling for direction without him.
Helleur’s return in the centres at least offered a degree of penetration, and with Argentina’s Gonzalo Tiesi and Samoan cap Sinoti Sinoti still to make their debuts, there is at least hope of the backs being sparked into some sort of life.
Just how long the raw attacking abilities of young bucks Joel Hodgson and Zach Kibirige can be ignored was one widespread point of conversation in the half-time coffee queue, but the management do not seem tempted to gamble. Wasps had no such issue in the pivot position, and for all that Goode may be a figure of fun for his physical appearance the former Leicester, Saracens, Brive and Worcester man still knows his way round a rugby field.
One plus for Newcastle continues to be the form of Tait at full-back, solid under the bomb and cool-headed in possession.
His combination play with Cato on the right caught the eye, and came tantalisingly close to delivering a try from 40 metres had the final pass gone.
Cato’s dab ahead in an attacking position almost delivered a try for his opponents when Daly booted possession metres down the left touchline, Ally Hogg only just having enough of a head start to beat Tom Varndell to the loose ball.
But less than two minutes later there was no stopping Wasps as a line-out in the left corner allowed South African flanker Ashley Johnson to be driven over.
Goode converted despite the fierce cross-wind, the exasperation of the 6,146 in attendance eased only on the hour mark when Cato crossed for their first Premiership try since a distant victory over London Irish.
Once again it was the link-up with Tait that delivered it, Godman having moved the ball right after Helleur’s earlier burst. The Scot’s conversion was blown wide, but his side finally had a foot-hold in the game.
After repeated attempts and with James Haskell in the sin-bin the second try came with the last play of the night, Welch grounding from close range to deliver the consolation of a losing bonus point. It could be vital.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: A Tait, N Cato, J Helleur, J Fitzpatrick, R Shortland, P Godman, C Pilgrim (M Blair, 55); R Vickers (F Montanella, 69), S Lawson, K Brookes (O Tomaszczyk, 69), C del Fava, F McKenzie (S Tomes, 45), M Wilson, W Welch (captain), A Hogg.
Falcons scorers – Tries: N Cato, W Welch. Conversions: P Godman.
LONDON WASPS: E Daly (J Carlisle, 71), W Helu, C Bell (captain), C Hayter (A Suniula, 55), T Varndell, A Goode, C Davies (J Simpson, 67); M Mullan (T Vea, 71), C Festuccia (T Lindsay, 71), J Cooper-Wooley (P Swainston, 67), T Palmer, J Launchbury (J Cannon, 67), A Johnson, J Haskell, S Jones (E Jackson, 48). Sin-bin: J Haskell (80).
Wasps scorers – Tries: S Jones, A Johnson. Conversions: A Goode. Penalties: A Goode.
Referee: W Barnes. Attendance: 6,146.