DEAN Richards highlighted Newcastle Falcons' failure to adapt to the referee as one of the overwhelming reasons for Saturday's sluggish victory over semi-professional opposition.
Despite still taking maximum points to put themselves seven clear at the top of their British and Irish Cup pool, the whistle of Irish official Eddie Hogan-O’Connell was the dominating feature of an infuriating second half in which the Falcons failed to score a point.
Newport managed seven to become the first side this season to win a half of rugby against the Championship leaders, Richards insisting his team need to sharpen up in acclimatising to over-zealous referees.
“It was a tough game,” admitted the director of rugby, whose side never seemed in any real danger of ending their 15-game unbeaten run despite struggling to cope with perplexing officiating.
“The style of refereeing in Ireland is different to what we are used to in the Championship and the boys found that frustrating.
“As a player you just have to take that out of the equation and try to adapt. We will have a look on the video and try to make sense of certain decisions and you just have to accept it is a different style of refereeing.”
Richards was well within his rights to zoom in on the official, but his side must also look in the mirror in analysing their failure to build on a 26-3 half-time advantage.
The chances were certainly there, with Joel Hodgson the creative fulcrum in a rare start at fly-half.
The 20-year-old was at his side-stepping best in getting in behind the Black and Ambers’ defence and his claims on a more regular stint at No 10 continue to grow louder.
It was his boot which set up the line-out from which their first try emanated, Richard Mayhew attacking the line at pace to canter through unopposed on 16 minutes.
A penalty try, Newcastle’s seventh of the season, provided a second when Andy Higgins was clattered in the act of grounding the ball, but the best was yet to come.
A sumptuous third try combined forwards and backs as Hodgson stole the initiative with a quickly-tapped penalty, feeding Taiasina Tu’ifua to set up a ruck down the right.
Play was quickly spun left to the space, with Hodgson’s perfectly-floated pass putting Chris York away for a two-on-one with the home full-back.
The former Harlequin fed Jimmy Gopperth out wide for a run-in and the full-back quickly chalked up the bonus point with the final play of the half as he ghosted through a gap for his second and his team’s fourth try of the afternoon.
It all seemed set for a points deluge after the break, such was Newcastle’s dominance.
However, it was the Welsh Premiership outfit who grabbed the second-half initiative when Craig Everett ploughed his way over just two minutes in. The big back-rower made the most of a ruck in the right corner to burrow over, with a mixture of wasteful finishing and indiscipline ensuring neither side added to their totals for the remaining 38 minutes.
“There was no complacency in preparation, and we did our homework on Newport as we would any other side we come up against,” said Richards, with the sides set to meet again at Kingston Park on Sunday.
“Newport would probably be mid-table in the Championship and, as I said during the week leading up to it, we knew it would be a good game.”
One plus for Richards was the return to fitness of James Hudson, although the circumstances of his introduction were far from ideal.
He replaced concussion victim Mark Wilson, who had himself only entered the fray two minutes earlier as a replacement for York.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: J Gopperth, L Fielden, S Hufanga (J Fitzpatrick, 32), J Helleur (captain), A Higgins, J Hodgson, R Lawson (W Fury, 57); G Shiells, M Mayhew(M Thompson, 57), S Wilson (O Tomaszczyk, 73), S Tomes, J Goode, C York (M Wilson, 57, J Hudson, 59), R Mayhew, T Tu’ifua.
Falcons scorers – Tries: R Mayhew, Penalty try, J Gopperth 2. Conversions: J Hodgson 3.
Sin-bin: S Wilson (68 mins).
NEWPORT: J Leadbeater, E Frewen (O Broad, 68), G O’Driscoll, A Davies (D Franchi, 59), A Hewitt, S Sneddon, R Downes (A Quick, 57); D Pattison, R Prosser (O Griffiths, 43), G Robinson (captain, J Jeune, 42), D Rosser (L Randell, 55), A Frampton, B Lampitt (A Brown, 60), C Attwell, C Everett.
Newport scorers – Tries: C Everett. Conversions: S Sneddon. Penalties: S Sneddon.
Sin-bin: A Hewitt (57 mins).
Referee: E Hogan-O’Connell (Ireland).