Newcastle Falcons will have to overturn a five point deficit in next week’s return leg of their RFU Championship play-off semi-final after a 24-19 defeat at Leeds Carnegie.
An injury time try from Ryan Burrows gave the Yorkshireman real hope ahead of the return leg at Kingston Park next Sunday (kick-off 1.15pm). But the Falcons on their home patch will fancy their chances of progressing through to the play-off final as they bid for an immediate return to the Aviva Premiership.
In this tensest of affairs at a sun drenched Headingley Carnegie Stadium it was nip and tuck all the way with both sides within touching distance of one another throughout the afternoon.
The Falcons went within inches of the first score with seven minutes on the clock when Jimmy Gopperth’s dab into the in-goal area was very nearly met by the onrushing Tane Tu’ipulotu. Earning perfect field position thanks to a slick counter-attacking move involving Adam Powell and Ryan Shortland, the visitors were unable to capitalise.
15 minutes into the contest it was Leeds who struck the first blow through full-back Stevie McColl after a neat line break from centre Fred Burdon. Burdon threw a dummy before showing his marker a clean set of heels to feed McColl, who was close in support. Joe Ford converted for a 7-0 lead.
Gopperth had the chance to reduce the deficit to 7-3 with a penalty midway through the first period, but his effort incredibly hit both the post and then the crossbar. Unlike last month against Bedford Blues, Jamie Helleur was not in attendance to add the finishing touches.
Two minutes later Gopperth got the Falcons on the scoreboard with a penalty directly in front of goal after Dean Richards’ men demonstrated their supremacy at the scrum.
Carnegie restored their seven point advantage almost immediately with a Ford penalty after unenforced errors from the Falcons gave their hosts an attacking platform. The talented No.10 repeated the trick ten minutes from the break to extend his team’s lead to 13-3.
The northeasterners closed the gap to 13-10 eight minutes from half-time by virtue of an Ally Hogg try. Gopperth was the catalyst, sprinting half the length of the field before he was bundled into touch five metres from Leeds’ try line. From the resulting lineout hooker Scott Freer misjudged the throw to allow Hogg to gather the loose ball and squeeze in at the corner.
Referee David Rose went upstairs to the TMO before the try was awarded. Gopperth’s touchline conversion just had enough purchase to drop over the bar, and the Falcons were now 13-10 behind.
On the stroke of half-time Gopperth levelled the score with a 30 metre penalty following an infringement at the scrum.
Arguably the Falcons had to show more composure with ball in hand in the second stanza as a vociferous Leeds crowd got right behind their troops.
A half which was exhausted of any real potency in attack was dictated by the boot of Ford and Gopperth.
Ford’s impeccable goal-kicking for the afternoon was halted five minutes into the second-half when he pulled a penalty across the face of goal.
Leeds were made to pay for their missed penalty just short of the hour mark when Gopperth landed a penalty from 35 metres out. Looking to take advantage of every kickable penalty, the Kiwi fly-half missed with a more difficult effort from out wide following an altercation at the maul as the Falcons endeavoured to turn the screw on their Yorkshire counterparts.
Gopperth made amends 15 minutes from time with a penalty from just inside Carnegie’s half to increase the gap to 19-13 in favour of the Falcons.
With the Falcons seemingly coming away with the slenderest of advantages, two quick fire penalties in the closing stages coupled with an injury time try turned the tie on its head.
Replacement Burrows took advantage of a Falcons’ handling error to bulldoze his way through to score in the corner. For the second time in the game Mr Rose conferred with the TMO who adjudged Burrows to have got sufficient downward pressure for the five-point score. Ford was unable to convert, and the Falcons will have to come from behind to book their place in the play-off final.
Leeds Carnegie: 15 Stevie McColl, 14 Oli Goss, 13 Josh Griffin, 12 Fred Burdon, 11 David Doherty, 10 Joe Ford, 9 Craig Hampson, 1 Lee Imiolek, 2 Scott Freer, 3 Damien Tussac, 4 Calum Green, 5 Matt Smith, 6 Rob Baldwin, 7 Chris Walker, 8 Jacob Rowan (c)
Replacements: 16 Phil Nilsen, 17 James Currie, 18 Ben Harris, 19 Pierce Phillips, 20 Ryan Burrows, 21 James Doherty, 22 Christian Georgiou
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Noah Cato, 13 Adam Powell, 12 Tane Tu’ipulotu, 11 Ryan Shortland, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Warren Fury, 1 Jonny Golding, 2 Michael Mayhew, 3 Oliver Tomaszczyk, 4 Scott MacLeod, 5 James Hudson, 6 Mark Wilson, 7 Will Welch (c), 8 Ally Hogg
Replacements: 16 Rob Vickers, 17 Scott Wilson, 18 Carlo del Fava, 19 Richard Mayhew, 20 Chris Pilgrim, 21 Joel Hodgson, 22 Jamie Helleur
Referee: David Rose