The LV= Cup is a competition not without its critics, but Newcastle Falcons yesterday used it as an ideal opportunity to have a look at their options.
Taking a break from the stresses and strains of Premiership combat, even 25 changes from last weekend’s starting line-ups could not prevent a half-decent game of rugby from breaking out.
Neither side, in reality, will have spent too many sleepless nights fretting over semi-final progression, the Anglo-Welsh tournament having found its niche as an arena for clubs for to blood their next generation and give game-time to their fringe figures.
“You take a win any day you can,” said Newcastle’s director of rugby Dean Richards.
“This competition gives the boys a bit of an opportunity to try things, whereby the consequences are not that great in terms of what happens in the league. That gives them the confidence to chance their arm a little and for some of the younger lads it is valuable experience for them.”
A closely-contested encounter produced two tries apiece, the battle of the boot putting Newcastle home as Rory Clegg slotted five penalties and a pair of conversions. The fly-half played the full 80 minutes as Joel Hodgson sat unused on the bench and the former England Schools cap must be wondering what he has to do to get a look-in.
Clegg, in fairness, was steady enough from the tee, slotting seven from eight and delivering a points haul which ultimately proved the difference between the two sides.
The old maxim of kicking to land, not to hand, seemed to go by the wayside as London Irish’s back-three received the ball without having to move too far for it, but Clegg’s first penalty had them up within seven minutes.
That was as a result of Tom Catterick’s pass to Zach Kibirige on the 22 drifting forward, Kibirige’s pace a welcome addition to a Newcastle side bereft of raw speed for much of the campaign.
A game of limited opportunities saw him eased back in after a long-running hamstring injury, his side doubling their advantage on 11 minutes when a hugely-dominant scrum on the 22 handed Clegg a second penalty opportunity.
It was the visitors who registered the first try of the afternoon when a long, looping pass from former England fly-half Shane Geraghty put Tom Fowlie away down the right-hand side, the winger showing fine pace to speed down the tram-lines and score. Clegg extended their lead to four on 18 minutes with a long-range strike.
However, it was Catterick who continued to catch the eye with deft kicking in behind the Exiles’ defence and a try-saving tackle on former Falcon Andrew Fenby before Geraghty’s boot put Irish ahead.
It was still Newcastle who led 16-11 at the break when scrum-half Warren Fury sniped his way over from a ruck in the shadow of the North Stand posts, but the visitors were in no mind to throw the game away, taking a 46th-minute lead when full-back Alex Lewington scored down the left from Fenby’s offload.
Geraghty converted, but their supremacy on the scoreboard lasted only ten minutes as forward dominance from the Falcons put them into a lead they were never to relinquish.
Exiles coach Glenn Delaney put that down to Newcastle’s nuggety appetite for the rough stuff, the Kiwi stating: “Newcastle are a very niggly side who are combative at the breakdown.
“They rode their luck and put a squeeze on us with a drive.
“Their set-piece detail was in order, and that probably won them the game.”
He was right, to a point, although his comments ignored the freedom with which Newcastle played.
Richards added: “There was very little wind and it was dry for once, which makes a difference. There were some good things, and in many ways I quite liked what we turned out.
“We played with a bit more ambition, which was nice, and it was nice to see Zach out there and the likes of Richard Mayhew and Scott MacLeod getting a full 80 minutes.”
Mayhew and MacLeod were both to the fore in many of the tight phases, the former pumping his legs and burying his head low to produce their second and final try on 54 minutes when a rolling maul powered its way over the line.
Clegg converted impressively from out wide on the left, and at 26-18 the gap was too great for the men from the Madejski, both sides only offering a further penalty apiece as Newcastle took the points.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: T Catterick, N Cato (T Penny, 69), D Barnes, J Fitzpatrick, Z Kibirige, R Clegg, W Fury; G Shiells (G Strain, 56), G McGuigan (S Lawson, 56), K Brookes (S Wilson, 56), F McKenzie, S MacLeod, R Mayhew, W Welch (captain), C York.
Falcons scorers – Tries: W Fury, R Mayhew. Conversions: R Clegg 2. Penalties: R Clegg 5.
LONDON IRISH: A Lewington, T Fowlie, G Armitage (F Mulchrone, 49), S Sa (M Dorrian, 62), A Fenby, S Geraghty (captain), D Allinson; M Parr (J Harris, 72), M Mayhew, J Hagan (L Halavatau, 65), B Toolis, K Low (B Lonergan, 72), D Danaher, D Kenny, B Cowan (B Evans, 56).
Sin-bin: J Hagan (53 mins)
Irish scorers – Tries: T Fowlie, A Lewington. Conversions: S Geraghty. Penalties: S Geraghty 2, M Dorrian.
Referee: D Gamage.