NEWCASTLE Falcons finished the weekend one point closer to the Aviva Premiership trap door, after second-placed Saracens showed their title credentials at Vicarage Road.
Trailing by only eight points at the break despite being comprehensively out-played by Mark McCall’s men, even a backlash early into the second half was nowhere near enough to ease their relegation fears.
Leeds’ losing bonus point at third-bottom Sale Sharks on Friday was no help either, although the Falcons do enjoy a game in hand on the Yorkshire side, who visit Kingston Park a week on Saturday.
On the night when the clocks had sprung forward, a 4am fire alarm at their team hotel did nothing to freshen up the Falcons, who were caught napping right from the start.
Jimmy Gopperth’s opening contributions were striking the kick-off out on the full and hoofing the ball dead from hand – the resulting scrum-back forcing a long-range penalty from which home fullback Alex Goode could not hit his target.
But before the Falcons had even had their hands on the ball they were five points down, as a similar scrum on half-way saw the play worked left through for winger James Short to speed over the try-line.
Goode’s touchline conversion sailed wide, but with the sun beating down on a rock-hard surface the cracks in Newcastle’s defensive armour were being tested non-stop.
Gopperth’s normally-reliable right boot was wayward with an admittedly ambitious penalty attempt from just inside the home half, but Sarries fullback Goode finally found his range with a simple 17th minute effort as the gap increased to eight.
Still yet to touch the ball outside of their own half, Newcastle looked like rabbits in the headlights being forced to absorb wave after wave of Saracens pressure – offering little in return aside from punts downfield to hand back possession.
Only the wayward boot of Goode could prevent the deficit from reaching double figures on the half hour, and within minutes the visitors finally got themselves off the mark as Gopperth’s penalty from half-way sailed high and handsome between the posts.
A five-point deficit seemed remarkably slim given the balance of play, and that was duly extended to eight with the very last play of the opening half as Owen Farrell – son of rugby league legend Andy – drilled over a long-range penalty for an 11-3 interval scoreline.
An unrecognisable Newcastle team emerged for the second-half and, whilst the personnel was the same, the philosophy had certainly changed for the better.
Keeping ball in hand and strangling the home pack with a 30-metre rolling maul, their pressure finally earned the penalty from which Gopperth clawed back three points.
A quickfire penalty exchange between Gopperth and Farrell added one more score for either side, with the Falcons seeking out mobility from the bench as Micky Young and Rob Vickers joined the fray for the last half-hour.
Ally Hogg’s sin-binning on the hour mark did little to sway momentum the visitors’ way, with Farrell taking them outside of losing bonus point range with a penalty from wide out on the 22.
And any lingering thoughts of an upset were put to bed with 10 minutes to go, when replacement prop Jared Saunders bulldozed his way over the try-line from close quarters down the left-hand side.
In the final analysis a 15-point margin could be regarded as some small success given the disparity between the two sides, but Alan Tait’s side know that this sort of form will only increase the tension as the Premiership survival race enters the home straight.
Saracens scorers – Tries: Short, Saunders. Conversions: Farrell. Penalties: Goode, Farrell 3.
Falcons scorers – Penalties: Gopperth 3.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: T Catterick, A Tait, L Eves, J Fitzpatrick (T Tu’ipulotu, 54), R Sheriffe, J Gopperth, C Pilgrim (M Young, 54); J Golding (G Shiells, 66), M Thompson (R Vickers, 49), J Hall (K Brookes, 46), J Hudson (captain), A van der Heijden (M Wilson, 66), T Swinson, W Welch, A Hogg (A Gray, 69).
Replacements: R Vickers, G Shiells, K Brookes, M Wilson, A Gray, M Young, T Tu’ipulotu, J Hodgson.
SARACENS: A Goode, D Strettle, C Wyles, B Barritt, J Short (N Cato, 65), O Farrell, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 40); M Stevens (J Saunders, 60), S Brits (J George, 69), C Nieto (P du Plessis, 53), S Borthwick (captain), H Smith (H Vyvyan, 53), J Melck (K Brown, 40), A Saull, E Joubert.
Replacements: J George, J Saunders, P du Plessis, H Vyvyan, K Brown, R Wigglesworth, A Powell, N Cato.
Referee: Martin Fox.