Newcastle Falcons secured themselves a European Challenge Cup semi-final spot after grinding out Friday’s quarter-final victory over dogged French visitors Brive at Kingston Park Stadium.
Leading 12-10 at half-time, they were made to work every inch of the way for their place in the last four, with that match taking place on the weekend of April 20/21/22.
A promising start for the Falcons saw them enjoying the lion’s share of possession and field position, Simon Hammersley and Chris Harris among the back-line runners making incursions into the Brive half on the back of some fine territorial kicking from Sam Stuart.
Clad in the traditional Gosforth green and white hoops in the year of the club’s 140th anniversary, the Falcons finally found the try that their early pressure deserved after 18 minutes, the move starting with Zach Kibirige and Sean Robinson combining well down the left.
A flowing handling move went from side to side, but the decisive break was made by Sam Lockwood in a central position on the Brive 22, the loose-head cutting a super line before feeding fellow prop Scott Wilson for a run-in, Toby Flood adding the conversion.
Brive hit back when fly-half Nicolas Bezy sent over a penalty from 35 metres out on 22 minutes, but the Falcons snatched back the momentum with a second try just three minutes after the restart.
It was Ryan Burrows’ sensational midfield running line which got the home side into the danger zone, the Yorkshireman powering to within five metres of the line before setting up the ruck from which Josh Matavesi quickly whipped the ball wide, freeing Kibirige to score in the left corner.
Flood’s conversion drifted fractionally left of its target to leave the Falcons’ lead at nine, a margin was soon cut to just two when No 8 Etienne Herjean pounced on a loose ball in midfield to race 50 metres unopposed, Bezy adding the simple conversion.
The home side allowed a prime attacking opportunity to slip through their fingers when Flood’s grubber to the left corner earned them a five-metre scrum, but sloppy handling saw the ball coughed up and Brive attacking 80 metres up the field, the Falcons only let off the hook when the French side also failed to hold onto possession in contact.
That left the half-time score at Newcastle 12 Brive 10, the Falcons going close to a third try but falling just short as Josh Matavesi’s line break saw him hauled down 10 metres out.
The Falcons went close just three minutes after the resumption when the video referee ruled Chris Harris to have been held up over the try-line after a penetrating run from the 22, the home side held up for a second time from the resulting scrum as Newcastle’s forwards attempted a series of pick-and-go forays.
The moment eventually passed by without score in front of an enthusiastic South Stand, play for both sides becoming increasingly scrappy as they entered the final half-hour with just two points separating them.
It took a moment of class from Flood to open up the game, his midfield line break and wide pass to the right sending Alex Tait away for a try in the corner, firing up a crowd of 4,053 on a freezing cold evening.
The Flood-Tait combo duly delivered the Falcons’ fourth try on 68 minutes when a series of close-range pick-and-goes sucked in the defensive numbers, Flood switching play to the width and floating a long, looping ball into the arms of Tait to score.
It was not to be the final points of the evening as Joel Hodgson chipped over a penalty with the very last kick, Newcastle securing safe passage to the semi-finals.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Simon Hammersley (Tom Penny, 75), 14 Alex Tait, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Josh Matavesi, 11 Zach Kibirige (Adam Radwan, 70), 10 Toby Flood (Joel Hodgson, 70), 9 Sam Stuart; 1 Sam Lockwood (Rob Vickers, 70), 2 Scott Lawson (Santiago Socino, 70), 3 Scott Wilson (Trevor Davison, 73), 4 Calum Green (Will Witty, 70), 5 Sean Robinson, 6 Ryan Burrows, 7 Will Welch (captain), 8 Nili Latu (Callum Chick, 75).
Scorers - Tries: Scott Wilson, Zach Kibirige, Alex Tait 2. Conversions: Toby Flood. Penalties: Joel Hodgson.
Brive: 15 Thomas Laranjeira, 14 Guillaume Namy, 13 Felix Le Bourhis, 12 Seremaia Burotu, 11 Sevanaia Galala (Franck Romanet, 64), 10 Nicolas Bezy, 9 Florian Cazenave (Vasil Lobzhanidze, 54); 1 Julien Brugnaut (Na'ama Leleimalefaga, 62), 2 Francois Da Ros (Thomas Aquier, 27), 3 Soso Bekoshvili (James Johnston, 52), 4 Johan Snyman (Julien Le Devedec, 52), 5 Jan Uys, 6 Said Hireche (captain), 7 Retief Marais, 8 Etienne Herjean (Peet Marais, 54).
Scorers - Tries: Etienne Herjean. Conversions: Nicolas Bezy. Penalties: Nicolas Bezy.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland). Attendance: 4,053.