Ahead of Saturday’s visit of Bath, Kingsley Hyland continues his series of rugby reminiscences by examining the historical links between the North East and the Recreation Ground Club.
Although Bath (founded 1865) and Newcastle (founded as Gosforth 1877) are amongst the oldest rugby clubs in the country, it was not until November 1993 that the two met for the first time in a Division One match at an already mud-covered Rec.
In the course of a miserable season which resulted in an immediate return to Division Two, Newcastle Gosforth came out on the wrong side of a 3-46 scoreline. The scores were a little tighter in the return with Bath (perhaps unused to playing on grass!) winning 29-5 at Kingston Park in late March.
The clubs did not meet again until the Falcons, under Rob Andrew’s stewardship, returned to the top division in 1997. In all, the clubs have now met 47 times in competitive fixtures - Bath winning 33 times and the Falcons just 13.
Three of the most memorable of those Falcons victories have come on the road.
Having returned to the top tier, the Falcons’ first fixture on August 23, 1997 was at the Rec. They had not had things all their own way in securing promotion in second place from Division Two, and the match was predicted to provide a stern examination of the Falcon’s Premiership credentials.
Bath had dominated English club rugby over the previous decade having won the National Cup in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1992, and the First Division title in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 and they boasted a team studded with internationals.
The Falcons emerged triumphant 20-13, and were to maintain a 100% league record until the last day of January.
The match itself was notable for two other reasons - the first an outstanding debut off the bench from Stuart Legg, and the second a highly controversial disciplinary incident involving skipper Dean Ryan.
Legg came on as an injury replacement for Tony Underwood midway through the first hal,f and having made a try-saving tackle as the clock ticked down with the scores level he popped up at the other end to score the match-winning try. Inga Tuigamala had scored the opening try, with both tries converted by Andrew, who also kicked two penalties.
The disciplinary incident came about as Bath flanker Nathan Thomas stamped on the prone Tim Stimpson, an act which earned him a red card from the perfectly-placed referee Steve Lander. Before the referee could act Ryan took matters into his own hands – as was the norm in those days – running in to remove Thomas with some force to earn himself a yellow card.
Watching from the comfort of his armchair in the Isle of Man, RFU Chairman Cliff Brittall, who Canute-like had sought to hold back the tide of professionalism and who had engaged in a longstanding war of words with Falcons Chairman Sir John Hall, demanded that the RFU Discipline Officer take action against Ryan, resulting in a charge of ‘conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game’, a provision usually reserved for off-field misconduct or infield acts which had gone unseen and unpunished by the officials.
Brittall’s apoplexy was now matched by Ryan himself, who received a four-week ban from a disciplinary panel. The club appealed on Ryan’s behalf, and backed by Sir John, instructed a senior barrister to advise on taking legal action against the RFU for acting beyond their powers. The result was a classic fudge, with the appeal panel reducing the ban to two weeks in the knowledge that the Falcons had no fixtures in the two weeks to which the suspension related. Everyone seemed happy, apart from Ryan himself, who felt that this reputation (!) had been tarnished.
The Falcons team that day was: T.Stimpson; J.Naylor; I.Tuigamala; A.Tait; T.Underwood (rep. S.Legg, 27); R.Andrew; G.Armstrong; N.Popplewell; R.Nesdale; P.Van Zandvliet; G.Archer; D.Weir; P.Lam; R.Arnold; D.Ryan.
Ryan also had a significant role in the return fixture on May 11, 1998 in front of over 11,000 at a sold-out Gateshead International Stadium.
The match had originally been scheduled for January 18 but was called off due to a waterlogged pitch. The replayed fixture, on a Monday night, was the Falcons’ last home fixture of the season and they went into it trailing Saracens by a point, but with a game in hand. In short, the Falcons had to win this fixture and their one remaining match at Harlequins the following Sunday to win the Premiership at the first attempt.
In the end it was a tight affair with the Falcons prevailing 20-15 with tries from Richard Arnold and Tony Underwood, and two conversions and two penalties from Andrew to five Jon Callard penalties.
Late in the game, with the Falcons hanging on to their hard-earned lead, Ryan took a blow to the head and was clearly concussed. After a lengthy delay George Douglas, the club doctor, insisted that he leave the field, but he initially refused and had to be escorted off. Nevertheless, the victory was achieved and was followed by the title winning victory at the Stoop.
The Falcons team that day was: S.Legg; J.Naylor; I.Tuigamala; A.Tait; T.Underwood; R.Andrew; G.Armstrong; N.Popplewell; R.Nesdale; P.Van Zandvliet; G.Archer; D.Weir; P.Lam; R.Arnold; D.Ryan.
A young, almost-unheard-of J Wilkinson was on the bench that night!
It was the 2004-05 season when the Falcons next paid an early-season visit to the Rec, having opened their Premiership season the previous weekend with a 30-9 victory at newly-promoted Worcester.
Once more playing in front of a sell-out crowd, this time with World Cup hero Willkinson the main attraction, the Falcons raced into an early lead through a Mike McCarthy try on four minutes and a Wilkinson penalty, followed by a Tom May try which Wilkinson converted. An unconverted Steve Borthwick try opened Bath’s scoring but a Michael Stephenson try, again converted by Willkinson, to a Chris Malone penalty saw the Falcons go into the break with a healthy 22-8 lead.
That lead was extended shortly after the break when Wilkinson dropped a goal off his ‘wrong’ right foot. A Brendon Daniel try for Bath brought the score back to 25-13, but May’s second try effectively secured the victory.
With echoes of 1997 a mass brawl erupted in the dying minutes after Jamie Noon took a boot to the head. The majority of the players became involved in an exchange of punches but only the Falcons’ Phil Dowson was singled out and received a red card. The Falcons were reduced to 13 men when May was sent to the sin bin. Bath took advantage of their numerical advantage through a try from Mike Tindall, but Wilkinson inevitably had the last word, dropping his second goal, this time from his ‘good’ left foot for a final score of 33-18.
The Falcons team that day was: J.Shaw; T.May; J.Noon; M.Mayerhofler; M.Stephenson; J.Wilkinson; H.Charlton; I.Peel; A.Long; M.Hurter; L.Gross; S.Grimes; M.McCarthy; C.Charvis; P.Dowson.
Having started the 2017-18 season with wins over Worcester (home 35-8) and Sale (away 13-12) they suffered their first defeat of the season at ‘home’ to Saracens in Philadelphia.
The game at Bath was an extraordinary affair with the Falcons opening up a 19-0 lead after half an hour, with tries from Tane Takulua, Bobby Vickers and DTH Van der Merwe and two conversions from Takulua, only to find themselves trailing 19-32 midway through the second half.
Bath scored tries through Matt Banahan, Semi Rokoduguni, Charlie Ewels and Jonathan Joseph along with three conversions and two penalties from Rhys Priestland. Undaunted, the Falcons hit back on 68 minutes with a try from skipper Will Welch, converted by replacement Joel Hodgson. It looked as though the visitors would be heading back to the North East with two hard-earned bonus points, but two became five when Mark Wilson burrowed over for a try with the last play of the game, and Hodgson held his nerve to kick the match-clinching conversion and a final score of 33-32.
The Falcons’ team that day was: S.Hammersley (rep.J.Matavesi, 40); V.Goneva; C.Harris; J.P.Socino; DTH Van der Merwe; C.Willis; (rep.J.Hodgson, 59); S.Takulua (rep.S.Stuart, 49); R.Vickers (rep.S.Mavinga, 61); S.Socino (rep.S.Lawson, 61); J.Welsh (rep.T.Davison, 56); C.Green; W.Witty (rep.S.Robinson, 56); M.Wilson; W.Welch; A.Hogg (rep. N.Latu, 56).
Despite having to wait for over a century before meeting there was a common link between the two clubs, who was instrumental in achieving national success at both.
Hartlepool-born Jack Rowell played as a second row forward for Gosforth in the 1960s and early 1970s, and his leadership potential was recognised when he was appointed club captain in 1970. In his second season as captain the club secured the Daily Telegraph Penant as the top team in the north of England, in addition to retaining the County Cup.
On retirement from playing he became club coach and was at the helm when the club achieved its first John Player Cup success in 1976. His business interests then took him to the South West where he became coach of Bath between 1978 and 1994, during which time the club enjoyed the most successful period in its long history. He stood down as club coach to become England coach between 1995 and 1997, taking in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in which Rob Andrew’s boot helped England reach the semi-finals.
Whilst it was not until 1993 that Bath and Newcastle finally met, Bath had played host to another Northumberland club 18 years earlier in 1975 when Morpeth were drawn away to Bath in the quarter final of the RFU National Cup.
Although Morpeth had beaten a below-strength Gosforth, by this time one of the country’s leading sides, earlier in the season they were very much still a ‘junior’ club with a primarily local fixture list.
They had reached this stage through a home victory over Stockwood Park (10-0) and a notable 19-3 success again at home over London Irish. Bath on the other hand had very much a national fixture list as well as fixtures in Wales. Already that season they had beaten Leicester, Gloucester, Bristol (twice) and Wasps, and so there should only have been one outcome when Morpeth made the long journey to the Rec, Bath’s home since 1994, on March 8, 1975.
Morpeth had done their homework, having had Bath watched twice. Bath had not reciprocated, on the basis that Morpeth was too far away!
A combination of an extremely muddy pitch and a much heavier pack should have added to Bath’s obvious advantage, but in the event it was Morpeth’s more mobile pack – they conceded over a stone a man – that held sway, with a back row including the Pringle brothers especially prominent.
In what was undoubtedly the best result in the club’s short history – they were only formed in 1947 – Morpeth triumphed 13-9, and were by no means flattered by that scoreline.
They took an early 3-0 lead through a Keenleyside penalty and extended this midway through the first half, when Brian Garnett crashed over in the corner for the game’s only try. A Davies penalty for Bath narrowed the lead to 7-3 at the break, but two more Keenleyside penalties put daylight between the sides at 13-3. Davies managed to reply with two penalties of his own, but failed to add to the scoreboard pressure when he missed a sitter of a penalty from 15 yards in front of the posts.
The Morpeth side that day was: Keenelyside; R.Thornton; A.McMillan; W.Casey; K.Fraser; W.Hewitt; I.Blakey; M.Stoney; J.Leithead; J.Dirom; B.Garnett; C.Ferguson; D.Learmouth; I.Pringle; D.Pringle.
From that side David Pringle and Ken Fraser both later became Northumberland County President after many years serving the county - indeed Fraser remains active as the Chairman of the county’s Competitions Committee. Fly-half Bill Hewitt has coached the club over a number of years and still serves as the club’s Fixture Secretary, whilst centre Walter Casey became a referee who achieved notoriety and no little hostility when officiating at Gosforth games in the 1980s.
Gosforth fell at the quarter-final stage that year losing at Bedford, whilst Morpeth were rewarded with a home semi-final draw against Rosslyn Park.
This proved to be a bridge too far for the Northumbrians as they went down 6-28. Rosslyn Park lost the final 12-28, going down to Gosforth’s conquerors Bedford, whose matchday squad included a youngish Alastair ‘Beever’ Johnson, a former Gosforth Colt who later returned to the North East to give sterling service to Gosforth and, in particular, Alnwick.