BEDFORD BLUES 9 NEWCASTLE FALCONS 18
A Jimmy Gopperth inspired Newcastle are in control of the Championship final after the Falcons got the better of Bedford Blues in a kicking battle in tonight’s first leg at Goldington Road.
Newcastle were heavy favourites going into the tie and they lived up to that tag as they dominated much of the game with a bullish performance, enjoying the lion’s share of territory and possession.
Gopperth’s lethal boot kicked six penalties and Blues only managed three of their own in reply as their best rugby failed to materialise until the latter parts of the game.
They did prevent Falcons from scoring a try with some siege like defending at times, and in the end would have been disappointed not to go over themselves after finally forcing Newcastle into some last ditch rearguard work in the dying minutes.
That came too little, too late though and although the deficit is not massive, it will take a huge effort to overturn the Falcons’ nine point advantage in the second leg in Newcastle on Wednesday.
The Falcons scrum was strong in particular as Blues lost out in front of a healthy home crowd of 4,588.
Blues full-back Ben Ransom took a blow to the face from Ryan Shortland in the early going after both sides had exchanged aerial kicks, but the Falcons man was allowed to stay on the park.
A partisan Bedford crowd disagreed with that decision, but spirits were soon lifted when Myles Dorrian’s penalty handed Blues the lead after the visitors had been caught offside.
With both sides finding their feet, Blues were then caught offside themselves which allowed Gopperth a simple kick to level the game.
Newcastle began to impose themselves on the contest with the last line of the Bedford defence required to keep them out on more than one occasion.
A scrum deep in Blues territory was dominated by the visitors and when the hosts fell away, Gopperth kicked his second penalty to hand the Falcons the lead for the first time in the match.
With the Blues increasingly penned in a first Falcons try looked inevitable and Shortland nearly got it when he was close to escaping onto a well placed kick from Warren Fury.
Shortland then exploded past several Bedford bodies but his final hand-off was lacking as Blues continued to hold firm against the barrage.
With half-an-hour played it was one way traffic, but the damage was limited to Gopperth kicking a third kick to make it 9-3.
Ransom produced Blues’ first real sign of life with a jinxing run through white shirts, but Gopperth added his fourth kick from right in front of the posts to make it 12-3 with the last action of the half.
Blues required a re-think with Newcastle’s speed and strength not allowing them any joy but the second half started in a near identical fashion, with the Falcons charging towards the Bedford line.
Gopperth missed with a drop goal, but he was able to punish Blues twice more with penalties, the first after Nick Fenton-Wells failed to release, the second for coming in from the side.
With the game and tie starting to drift away from Bedford, Mike Rayer’s men produced their best move of the match but Newcastle were able to fall on the ball over their own line.
Blues were lifted by this rare sight of points though and Dorrian finally broke the stream of Gopperth penalties with one of his own after Newcastle were penalised.
Rayer’s side were saving their best for last, but another dangerous looking move was frustratingly ended by a knock-on and shortly afterwards Gopperth was lacing up his boots again, but for the first time in the game he was off target as his effort skewed to the right of the sticks.
Another Bedford raid nearly saw James Short sprint away to the left corner, and Newcastle were then penalised for offside which allowed replacement Jake Sharp to dink a kick over the posts to bring the score back to 18-9.
A late try would have made the return leg extremely interesting and Blues were inches away from claiming it when James Stephenson raced away on to a well placed kick.
He just lost out in the foot race though and Newcastle fell on the ball to keep Bedford out.
With the game going past the 80 minute mark, Blues continued to knock on the door with Newcastle firmly on the back foot in front of their own line.
An intensity which was sadly lacking for most of the rest of the contest was now on display, but the reward of a try was not forthcoming.
In the end Blues opted to kick to end the game but Sharp’s tricky effort from the left was wide and the gap going into Wednesday’s second leg in the north east remained at nine points.
After the start Blues made it could have been a much worse outcome, but after their finish they will be wondering how the gap isn’t closer. In the end though, this score is probably just about right.
Blues: Ransom, Stephenson, Burke, Atkinson, Short, Dorrian, Baldwin, Reeves, Cochrane, Boulton, Howard, Tupai, Gillanders, Fox, Fenton-Wells. Replacements: Spurling, Seal, Gulliver, Barrell, Veenendaal, Sharp, Dodge.
Falcons: Tait, Cato, Hufanga, Powell, Shortland, Gopperth, Fury, Shiells, Vickers, Tomaszczyk, Del Favo, Macleod, Wilson, Welch, Hogg. Replacements: Mayhew, Golding, Wilson, Hudson, Tu’ifua, Lawson, Luveniyali.