With 3 rounds now completed and three 5-point wins in the bag, Newcastle are already sitting pretty at the top of the table. So far so good for the North East’s premier rugby club. But it actually hasn’t all been plain sailing as Jeff Ball describes.
Week 1: It all started away to well-supported Bristol, on paper possibly the hardest match of the regular season. Despite having a number of ex-Falcons in their ranks with a point to prove, a number of injuries to Bristol left them depleted and the Falcons ran out 37-20 winners. The forwards proved dominant but the backs lacked fluidity and could have had more tries with some more cohesive play. It was down to Ally Hogg to get the bonus point 4th try in the final moments to ensure the maximum points were taken back up North.
Week 2: Another long away trip, this time to London Scottish. A 49-32 win was the end result with seven tries including another three from Ally Hogg, but the result hardly told the whole story. Despite the multitude of tries it was their defence that lead to a post-match dressing room that would lead you to believe they had lost the game. The Falcons had been 42-11 up just after the break and allowed Scottish back into the game in a way that undoubtedly unleashed the Dean Richards hairdryer afterwards.
The Falcons clearly have a powerful pack, emphasised by their decision to let the Scottish International and Lions prop Euan Murray go to Agen on loan for three months with Oliver Tomaszczyk (tomahawk to the fans) providing more than capable cover. But the backs haven’t quite gelled, and further tinkering is required for them to find the best line up.
The first two weeks also provided a further lesson: every side Newcastle will play this season will be looking for that memorable scalp. With respect, London Scottish looked a lot less likely to cause an upset than the likes of, say, Bedford Blues (who will prove one of the most difficult opponents this season based on their results so far). But this season will be like a Cup Final every match for their opposition, and to mentally switch-off like they did against London Scottish could easily lead to disaster later in the season.
Week 3: This time the Falcons ran out in front of their own fans at long last, as they went on to record a 37-3 victory over Doncaster Knights with the classy Jimmy Gopperth scoring the all-important 4th try in the last play of the game.
The lessons of the trip to London had clearly been heeded with the solitary penalty conceded, and although Doncaster made things uncomfortable and certainly taught a few of the younger lads what it is to play against more grizzled opposition, realistically Doncaster did not pose any real threat to the Falcons try line. Their best chance of scoring tries was either through Falcons’ ill-discipline or mistakes, neither of which proved to be profitable this time around.
But yet again the back play of the Falcons proved to be uninspiring and help generate a slightly disappointed air amongst the home fans as they departed. Despite taking a five-point win and a 34-point winning margin, the Falcons fans expect better, and the players themselves (via Twitter) have also expressed a desire for more.
There were so many knock-ons from both sides it felt like watching a game from a much lower level at times, even allowing for the chaotic circling wind. Unsympathetic passes were being made too close to the gain-line or too wide or too high as the players seemed frantic to score tries instantly rather than build phases. Less haste and more speed comes to mind.
Nonetheless, it is still early days and the forwards are providing a solid platform in the scrum and the line out. It seems to be more a matter of time than any serious issue when it comes to getting the attack ‘clicking’ and when it does, a cricket score will ensue on some poor side. It must be remembered that the coaching staff have not been together long and will still be looking to instill their methods and ethos on the side.
To criticise sitting at the top of the table with 15 points from 15 and 123 points scored may seem harsh but given the ambitions of the club to be a Heinenken Cup regular within five years, then they need to be better. One comment I saw was that the 22-game league season is nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the crucial play-offs at the end of the year.
That gives them 19 more games to get their patterns right, cut out the silly mistakes and become a side that will not simply crawl back into the Premiership, but start to really challenge within it. A fascinating and entertaining season indisputably beckons.