NEWCASTLE FALCONS 31 (49) BEDFORD BLUES 24 (33)
They gave Newcastle a big scare, but in the end Bedford Blues were unable to pull off a shock comeback as they were beaten in the second leg – and on aggregate – in the Championship final at Kingston Park this evening.
Blues knew they had it all to do after an 18-9 defeat in the first leg and this was a much better performance against the champions elect, which ensured that the Falcons never had it easy as they booked an immediate return to the Premiership.
Jake Sharp in particular was outstanding as he kicked all of the Blues points with seven penalties and a drop goal to give the Newcastle faithful some nervy and frustrating moments.
At one stage the aggregate gap between the two sides was just three points but the Falcons, and in particular the lethal 21-points boot of Jimmy Gopperth, always had an answer when the Blues began to threaten something miraculous.
The Falcons also scored the only two tries of the match which came after two rare bursts of swift passing rugby, whereas Blues - who didn’t manage a try in either leg - were agonisingly short when they neared the home line.
In the end Bedford’s task was too great but they should take heart from the grit and effort they showed this evening in the last game of a superb season when they proved that they are the best part-time outfit in the country.
Newcastle were always heavy favourites to progress given their greater resources, their professional squad and the way they dominated the regular Championship season, but Blues proved to be more than worthy opponents and should be proud of their achievements.
Blues Director of Rugby Mike Rayer announced several changes from the defeat in the first leg as he looked to mastermind a historic comeback.
One of his switches was Sharp for Myles Dorrian which paid off handsomely thanks to the new number ten’s points haul.
Newcastle in contrast made just one switch from their side for the final 80 minutes of Championship rugby this season.
Bedford travelled to the north east with absolutely no pressure on their shoulders and would have taken heart from the final 15 minutes of the first leg when they caused the Falcons problems after struggling for much of the rest of the contest.
Scoring early – or at least first – was said by many to be vital for Blues, but it was Newcastle who were given an early chance of the posts after Blues were caught offside.
Gopperth, whose boot kicked all 18 of the Falcons points in the first leg, didn’t need a second invitation and he slotted through the uprights to stretch Newcastle’s aggregate advantage to 12 at 3-0 (21-9).
The advantage on the night didn’t last long as Sharp levelled the game with a penalty for Blues to make it 3-3 (21-12) and the visitors then enjoyed good field position around the Newcastle line.
It was a positive start from Blues who were working hard and doing the basics right, and any Newcastle nerves would have increased when the hosts were caught offside to allow Sharp to kick Bedford into the lead on the night and narrow the overall gap to just six points at 6-3 (21-15).
Frustration was creeping into the Falcons’ play with Bedford forcing them into errors, and the home crowd’s displeasure was taken up a notch when another indiscretion allowed Sharp to make it a hat-trick of kicks from range to reduce the arrears to just three points at 9-3 (21-18).
Now it was very much game on but Blues were penalised for a collapsed scrum shortly afterwards which allowed Gopperth to restore Newcastle’s breathing space with a penalty to make it 9-6 (24-18).
It was a score that seemed to revitalise Newcastle and from nowhere Bedford’s fine early play was undone as the home side put together their strongest spell of the match.
Some fabulous build-up work had Bedford scrambling around near their own line, and Rayer’s men were forced into some last ditch work to keep the Falcons out.
The hosts bided their time though and eventually recycled the ball to James Shortland who touched down for the first try of the tie in the corner - a score eventually awarded after consultation with the video ref.
Gopperth missed the extras, but Newcastle suddenly had an ominous 11-9 lead on the night and a 29-18 lead in the final overall.
Bedford did not let this setback bother them though and they came back firing, continuing with their good early work.
In an end to end contest, a fine Sharp drop goal put Blues back ahead on the night at 12-11 (21-29) but Newcastle kept their own scoreboard ticking over when Darren Fox was penalised for Bedford for not releasing, allowing Gopperth to slot over another penalty.
Blues would not go away in a see-saw contest and Sharp’s fine night with the boot continued with another penalty to put Bedford 15-14 up in the game and eight points adrift in the tie at 24-32.
Sharp was keeping Blues in contention on his own, and he very nearly burst through into empty grass as the visitors ended the half particularly strongly.
He was reeled in but Falcons conceded a penalty for not rolling away and Sharp booted over his fifth penalty to make it 18-14 (27-32).
Blues had hope again but in keeping with the game they were pegged back by another Gopperth penalty on the stroke of half-time after Blues held on too long at the ruck, and it was 18-17 (27-35) at the interval.
Bedford started brightly following the re-start and another break into space from Sharp preceded an early Blues penalty for offside, which Sharp had no problem with to make it 21-17 (30-35).
Again there was heavy pressure on Newcastle, but when they needed to respond they did with a sudden burst of high tempo rugby.
This was only their second spell of really fluid play but just like the first in the opening 40 minutes it again led to a try as Alex Tait went over to put the Falcons in the lead on the night at 22-21 and stretch their aggregate gap to 40-30.
Gopperth missed with his conversion which struck a post but his side seemed to be able to turn on the style with a flick of a switch - with two great moves seemingly coming from nowhere.
A huge boot forward from Bedford’s Gregor Gillanders led to Newcastle grounding the ball behind their own line and a five metre scrum for Blues, but they failed to make the most of it.
This was a big chance to score points which went begging and the game looked to be slipping away again as Gopperth kicked a penalty at the other end to give his side a 25-21 (43-30) lead.
Blues welcomed returning skipper James Pritchard, back from a broken arm, into the side, and the lightning quick James Short was unlucky to be held up just on the Newcastle line.
There was then controversy when Pritchard looked set to release Gillanders for a certain try in the corner, but the Canadian’s pass was illegally flicked away by Noah Cato’s hand.
Sharp kicked the resulting penalty to make it 25-24 (43-33) to Newcastle but it could have easily been seven points for Blues after a fine spell in Falcons territory.
This was another big moment, and shortly afterwards a huge Falcons scrum allowed Gopperth to further stretch Newcastle’s advantage to 28-24 (46-33) with just ten minutes to play.
Blues’ task now seemed to be too much great and Falcons comfortably saw out the clock to achieve the Championship title and promotion.
Gopperth, who is off to Leinster, kicked another penalty late on to make the advantage a slightly unfair seven points on the night and 16 points overall.