Newcastle Falcons 15 Sale Sharks 13
Who would have envisaged such a turnaround when Newcastle were embarrassingly well beaten by Ealing Trailfinders just before the beginning of the season? Since then Dean Richards’ collection of retreads has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis, beating Bath on the road last weekend, and now deservedly seeing off Sale Sharks thanks to a dramatic injury-time try from Toby Flood.
At times, and especially in a first half which saw them take a 10-0 lead, Newcastle displayed an intensity and energy which shook Sale. Keeping it tight and playing to their strengths, Falcons won the arm-wrestle and, with it, notched up back-to-back wins on their return to the top flight. For Sale, this was a deeply disappointing and at times directionless performance in which they badly suffered from the absence of the leadership usually brought by Jono Ross.
Newcastle opened the scoring through the boot of Brett Connon after just five minutes when Sale were caught offside. The home side should have gone even further ahead but the problems from the kicking tee that bedevilled Connon in last week’s win at the Recreation Ground once again surfaced, the Falcons fly-half missing a straightforward penalty that would have given them a 6-0 lead as the game entered its second quarter.
But once Newcastle got their noses in front, they stayed there for virtually the whole game. Teams coached by Dean Richards are, as their director of rugby once was, usually proficient at playing territory and possession, at keeping hold of the ball and then turning the tourniquet. Unexpectedly dominant at the breakdown, where Connor Collett was outstanding, Newcastle punched holes in midfield through George Graham and around the fringes, where Sean Robinson and George McGuigan carried particularly effectively.
When it came, Newcastle’s first try was the result of incessant pressure after a characteristically astute kick ahead from Toby Flood saw Sale penalised for holding on and the onslaught begin. For the next seven minutes the Falcons forwards battered away at the line, winning scrums and a succession of penalties as Sale’s big men defended desperately. McGuigan, Graham and Mulipola all went close but after Dan du Preez was shown a yellow card after the Sharks’ fifth penalty in as many minutes, the arm wrestle swung decisively and Robinson finally muscled his way over. Connon added the extras to make it 10-0.
Despite a distinctly lacklustre first-half performance and still being down to 14 men Sale scored first after a tediously protracted kicking duel ended when Falcons fullback Tom Penny was caught in possession and AJ McGinty kicked the resulting penalty. When the Sharks fly-half added another shortly afterwards the Lancastrians trailed by just four points.
Newcastle tried to keep it tight, and for most of the half they succeeded but when Sale finally managed to make some space down the right wing, lock Cobus Wiese forced his way over in the corner. When McGinty slotted the conversion with eight minutes remaining, Sale were on the brink of a win that they barely merited, but Newcastle launched one final charge which ended when scrum-half Mickey Young clipped through a beautifully judged little kick for Flood to clain a try in the corner and ensure justice was done.