Newcastle Falcons and Bath will kick off the new Premiership season in three weeks’ time, and last night the two teams warmed up against each other in the Mediterranean sun in a competitive game without a winner.
Invited to France’s Languedoc region on the eve of its famous ‘Feria’ festival, the attention of the Beziers public was more focused on gearing up for the four-day programme of bull-fighting and flamenco dancing which starts today.
But for Dean Richards and his newly-promoted Falcons the evening was a valuable chance to gauge the early shape of his squad.
Further tests at home to Connacht and away to Edinburgh are still to come, but there was more than enough in a competitive 80 minutes to suggest the director of rugby’s side will be no lambs to the slaughter.
Only an Anthony Perenise try and a Tom Heathcote conversion separated the sides at the first of their drinks breaks under the baking sun, the Samoan prop ploughing over from a rolling maul down the left.
Until then the Falcons had been right at it, Joel Hodgson mixing the play well at fly-half in a side containing Scottish Gary Strain, who formed part of a strong early scrum in his loosehead debut. Teenage winger Sean Brown broke through a host of tackles on his senior bow, and Tom Catterick (pictured above) continued to show the promise so evident during his sevens exploits.
Richard Mayhew on the blindside flank was once again the customary combination of industry and dynamism, and despite out-and-out chances being in short supply it was proving a useful run. One-time Falcons target Martin Roberts made the first real line-break of the evening five minutes before half-time, only to be scragged back by the second wave of defence, but there was no such luck for Newcastle on 38 minutes when full-back Anthony Watson collected an inside pass on a straightening line for a 14-0 interval advantage.
Newcastle started the second half in precisely the sort of fashion coaches dream of – a crisp and well-rehearsed line-out in the left corner seeing deception and quick hands as Ryan Shortland dived in at the blind-side.
Phil Godman slotted the touchline conversion to halve the deficit, and within five minutes he was doing the same again from the other flank as a textbook three-on-two saw Noah Cato level things up with a try down the right.
After a quarter in which their defensive line had been blown on multiple occasions Bath tightened up for the closing 20, reverting predominantly to pick-and-go forward play. Newcastle, with Alex Tait carrying hard, tried again to puncture them, and the steady head of Mike Blair at scrum-half brought the kind of nous that Bath counterpart Peter Stringer had done during his time in the North East.
Eating up the yards with his kicks down the blindside corridor, it was the type of precision that will serve his side well during the cold winter months. As will their line-out drive, even if a penalty in front of the posts to take the lead was instead kicked to touch, only for the Falcons’ set-piece to misfire.
Livewire Shortland, one of the sharpest on the night, had his dab to the in-goal dotted down by a Bath hand as time ticked by, and ex-Falcons trialist Semesa Rokoduguni was thwarted on an inside line as a strong shoulder halted his progress to the posts.
Ex-Newcastle half-back Micky Young scurried back to deny his former club a try when Godman chipped craftily in behind the defence, and Bath’s fortune continued when Matt Banahan popped up from 40 metres to claw in an interception try.
It was a score which looked to have clinched it, but with just two minutes remaining and his space eaten up by the lateral running of his team-mates, Shortland cut against the grain and beat two tacklers to score his second try. Godman converted, and the sides ended all-square.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: T Catterick, A Higgins, M Tait, A Crockett, S Brown, J Hodgson, C Pilgrim; G Strain, M Thompson, S Wilson, S Tomes, F McKenzie, R Mayhew, W Welch (captain), C York. Replacements: M Blair, C del Fava, M Tait, S MacLeod, P Godman, R Shortland, N Cato, O Tomaszczyk, R Vickers, S Lawson, D Barnes, J Helleur, A Tait, A Hogg, D Barrow.
Falcons scorers – Tries: R Shortland 2, N Cato. Conversions: P Godman 3.
BATH: A Watson, S Rokoduguni, M Banahan,G Henson, T Biggs, T Heathcote, P Stringer; N Catt, R Batty, A Perenise, S Hooper, M Garvey, W Skuse, G Mercer, L Houston. Replacements: T Dunn, P James,K Palma-Newport, D Day, Spencer,D Sisi, M Gilbert, N Koster, M Roberts, M Young, C Cook, A Fa’osiliva.
Bath scorers – Tries: A Perenise, A Watson, M Banahan. Conversions: T Heathcote 2 O Devoto.
Referee: R Poite (France)