Mathematically they are not there yet, but Newcastle Falcons inched closer to Premiership safety with a performance of passion and a well-deserved losing bonus point.
Standing ovations for losing teams are few and far between, but Dean Richards’ side were well worth the applause they received on full-time from a fanbase who had been yearning to see some ambition.
They got that and then some after matching the league leaders in every department and beating them in some – albeit a Saracens side showing 13 changes as they travelled with an eye on their upcoming Heineken Cup semi-final.
Newcastle’s goals remain less grand, but in stretching the gap between themselves and Worcester to eight points with two games to go they did enough to ensure survival will be guaranteed a week on Saturday should the Warriors fail to win at Sarries or Newcastle do so at Wasps.
Director of rugby Dean Richards had torn into the attitude of his charges a week ago after losing 40-12 at London Irish, but had no such qualms yesterday in crediting their much-improved offering.
“I would almost say that I enjoyed it, but I never enjoy watching a defeat,” said the former England and Lions great, who was rewarded for an adventurous selection which included first Premiership starts for George McGuigan and Joel Hodgson.
“The lads acquitted themselves really well, with young players like Joel and George in key decision-making roles.
“We were competitive for most of the game and the crowd were behind us.
“The boys weren’t afraid to put their bodies on the line and they did good things.”
A flying start had the home side a try ahead after only two minutes, a sensational team score seeing Alex Tait (pictured below) hit an inside line from full-back to get in behind the defence.
Play was worked wide to the left through Mark Wilson’s support running and when Sinoti Sinoti was handed a one-on-one in the left corner the Samoan international simply ran over the top of his prospective tackler to score.
Despite having Jack Wilson in the sin-bin for a mid-air tackle, Saracens hit back through Tim Streather’s try when Alex Goode showed his England class in isolating Grant Shiells.
That mis-match set in motion a foray down the left, quick hands in midfield allowing Streather to score in the opposite corner.
Noah Cato’s injury forced a back-line reshuffle as Danny Barnes deputised out wide, Newcastle’s freshened-up selection partially responsible for the improved offering as Richard Mayhew balanced the back-row superbly.
The Kiwi’s addition to the blind-side allowed Will Welch to shine in by far his best position at open-side, Adam Powell’s return to the midfield creating plenty and Joel Hodgson at fly-half making things happen.
The 21-year-old traded penalties with namesake Charlie to take the half-time score to 10-8 in Saracens’ favour, Newcastle’s effort a well-drilled blast into the wind from only a step inside the opposition half.
Ruthless efficiency has become the trademark of a Sarries side who would win few points for artistic impression and a well-rehearsed kick-off drill ensured they retained possession to chip the first points of the second period when Hodgson’s penalty bisected the uprights.
The league leaders were enduring a torrid time in the scrum, however, Oliver Tomaszczyk anchoring a monumental Kingston Park shove which supplied a succession of penalties and no shortage of pats on the back from his supporting cast.
It was from that scrum platform Joel Hodgson smashed over another long-range penalty, this time from the right touchline, to reduce the deficit to two, Charlie replying with his own third penalty of the afternoon to restore the margin.
It did nothing to stunt the growth of Newcastle’s ambition, but they had only themselves to blame for Ben Ransom’s try when Sinoti’s pass to nobody was gratefully accepted by the replacement, who sped 60 metres up the right touchline to score.
That took the Falcons outside of losing bonus point range for the first time of the afternoon, but they managed to end inside the seven-point buffer when Warren Fury’s try down the right was eventually awarded by the video referee following Alex Tait’s burst for the line.
Phil Godman added the conversion, Newcastle’s followers showing on the final whistle they are prepared to accept defeat if it is delivered to them in the right manner.
Richards echoed those sentiments to a point, adding: “Their first try was a bit of naivety on our behalf and the interception try was what it was, but these young boys will learn from this season and take it into next year.
“Hopefully, that next season will be in the Premiership and, while there were pleasing aspects of the performance, I would much rather be talking about a win.”
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: A Tait, N Cato (D Barnes, 19), A Powell, J Helleur, S Sinoti, J Hodgson (P Godman, 73), M Blair (W Fury, 73); G Shiells, G McGuigan (M Thompson, 62), O Tomaszczyk (S Wilson, 62-68), D Barrow (I Nagle, 68), S MacLeod, R Mayhew, W Welch (captain), M Wilson (C York, 73).
Falcons scorers – Tries: S Sinoti, W Fury. Conversions: P Godman. Penalties: J Hodgson 2.
SARACENS: A Goode, M Tagicakibau (N Mordt, 74), T Streather, C Wyles, J Wilson (B Ransom, 61), C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (captain, B Spencer, 71)); R Barrington (R Gill, 51), J George, M Stevens (P du Plessis, 58), E Sheriff (H Smith, 65), A Hargreaves, N Fenton-Wells, W Fraser (J Melck, 55), J Wray.
Sin-bin: J Wilson (7 mins)
Saracens scorers – Tries: T Streather, B Ransom. Conversions: C Hodgson 2. Penalties: C Hodgson 3.
Referee: A Small. Attendance: 4,878.