Promotion reaction: Newcastle Falcons 31-24 Bedford Blues

Aviva Premiership

Wednesday 29 May 2013 – 7.45pm

Kingston Park, Newcastle

RFU Championship Final 2nd leg


In the end I guess it wasn’t so dramatic. The Falcons played a controlled game, kept the scoreboard ticking over as Bedford sent over kick after kick, and a couple of tries gave us some big cheer practice before we could finally celebrate promotion at full-time.


In reality, Jimmy Gopperth’s last penalty that sent the aggregate lead over 14 points a few minutes from time made promotion certain, but in sport you can never be 100% certain and the Falcons do not know how to do things the easy way.


But that’s not important, all that ever mattered this season was getting back into the Premiership and that has been achieved.


I suppose there is a big sense of relief now that it is all over, the banana skin play-offs have been safely negotiated and we don’t have to do it all again next season with potentially the same result.


Obviously the Premiership is going to be a big challenge and work needs to be done still to make sure that our latest stay in the top division is not as short as that in the Championship.


But now that we have learned not to take them for granted, we can again enjoy trips to Gloucester, Leicester, Harlequins, and of course the one I myself can’t wait for – Bath. Not forgetting the lake in Northampton. Can we please have Stade Francais in Europe too?


It’ll certainly be interesting to see which new signings are coming in now that promotion has been secured. Two internationals and a couple of established Premiership players were mentioned last night, though nobody told me any names. I would expect a big name to be announced later this week if indeed one is lined up.


No doubt there are many sore heads this morning among players, fans and everyone else connected with the Falcons. Personally I don’t feel too bad, didn’t sleep enough but an hour this afternoon and I’ll be ready to celebrate all over again in Whickham tonight.


Sore voices? Perhaps not so much. It was said last night that Leeds was the really big one, and I think the atmosphere was louder at the semi-final. Perhaps because we had more away fans to silence, and the situation in the tie was more tense. But yesterday was still one an evening there will ever forget.


I wonder what time the party finally ended at KP last night? It was still in full swing at midnight.


This has been a season like no other for a young (ish) generation of Falcons fans like myself who have never known away games outside the Premiership, and though it has not been the rollercoaster ride of the last few, it has been a great year and hopefully the start of better things.


Thank you for reading this season, and thank you to all fans for your company whether it be at matches, on trains or at 1am in a bar in Jersey or Bedford.


Watch out Premiership. We’re back!



(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)


Match preview: Newcastle Falcons v Bedford Blues


Wednesday 29 May 2013 – 7.45pm

Kingston Park, Newcastle

RFU Championship Final 2nd leg


If the Falcons are to be denied promotion back to the Premiership at the first attempt, then Bedford will have to do something they have never done before – win at Kingston Park by more than nine points.


Since the very first meeting between the two clubs back in March 1967, when the Blues won 0-17 at North Road, our biggest home defeat to the team standing between us and the top league would not be enough to save London Welsh. Bedford’s last win at KP was in September 1995, just weeks after Sir John Hall and Rob Andrew pitched up, 23-30, and in four visits since the Falcons have triumphed each time.


Of course it has not always been simple – there was the epic comeback from 5-23 down to win 34-23 in January 1999, and then Noah Cato’s last-gasp debut try just over two months ago.


But nine months of matches, 22 in the regular season and three in the play-offs around nine in the British & Irish Cup, this is the one everyone has been waiting for ever since London Welsh proved what most people know in their heart of hearts: that primacy of tenure is a load of rubbish.


The second leg of the play-off final sees the Falcons hold a nine-point advantage after winning the first game 9-18 at Goldington Road and therefore an eight-point defeat would be OK for the Falcons, though perhaps not for the blood pressure of anyone involved. A nice early try or two to settle the nerves and kickstart the party would be welcome.


The Falcons must hold a massive psychological advantage, or at least we should if things are tight late on, after four wins against Bedford this season, but as Dean Richards has warned, our visitors might well come up with something new to turn the tide.


Of course it’s not all about promotion tomorrow night. We’re also saying goodbye to a number of players, including James Hudson, Taiasina Tu’ifua and retiree prop Jonny Golding. Jimmy Gopperth will also play his final game in a black shirt following four years, over 100 appearances, almost 1,200 points and two Premiership golden boots, and will go with the thanks of every Falcons fan for being a talisman during that time.



Wor Jimmy starts, while others may also be playing for their futures at KP but some will also playing for their futures as professional players. The only change from the first game is on the bench, where Matt Thompson replaces the also-departing Michael Mayhew. Waisea Luveniyali is again the only loose back among the replacements.


Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Noah Cato, 13 Suka Hufanga, 12 Adam Powell, 11 Ryan Shortland, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Warren Fury, 1 Grant Shiells, 2 Rob Vickers, 3 Oliver Tomaszczyk, 4 Carlo del Fava, 5 Scott MacLeod, 6 Mark Wilson, 7 Will Welch (c), 8 Ally Hogg.


Replacements: 16 Matt Thompson, 17 Jonny Golding, 18 Scott Wilson, 19 James Hudson, 20 Taiasina Tu’ifua, 21 Rory Lawson, 22 Waisea Luveniyali.


Bedford are missing last week’s starting fly-half Myles Dorrian as he is getting married – he mustn’t have had much confidence in them getting this far – and have made several changes to their starting lineup while James Pritchard will be a danger from the bench:


Bedford: 15 Ben Ransom, 14 James Short, 13 Ollie Dodge, 12 Mark Atkinson, 11 Josh Bassett, 10 Jake Sharp, 9 Darryl Veenendaal, 1 Ricky Reeves, 2 Scott Spurling, 3 Dan Seal, 4 Mike Howard, 5 Paul Tupai, 6 Gregor Gillanders, 7 Darren Fox (c), 8 Nick Fenton-Wells.


Replacements: 16 Neil Cochrane, 17 Phil Boulton, 18 Ben Gulliver, 19 Don Barrell, 20 Luke Baldwin, 21 Ian Vass, 22 James Pritchard.



After tomorrow night we have three months to recover our voices before the start of 2013/14, so lets give it one last mighty go and roar the Falcons back into the Premiership. Leave everything we have on the terraces, if there is to be party afterwards then that will take care of itself. Come on!



(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)


Match reaction: Bedford Blues 9-18 Newcastle Falcons


Thursday 23 May 2013 – 7.45pm
Goldington Road, Bedford
RFU Championship Final 1st leg

“That’ll do!” seemed to be the general opinion among away fans in Bedford last night as the Falcons secured a nine-point lead at half-time in the Championship Final.

It was a night of contrasting styles, as the division’s most powerful forwards took on probably its most dynamic backline, but at the end of an evening of no tries our pack dominated and defence held out and a Premiership place is there for the taking.

Surely only a catastrophic bout of arrogance will see us blow a 9-18 aggregate lead at KP next week.

Of course the tie is not yet won but I can’t see us losing now. The Falcons have now beaten Bedford four times this season, thrice away, and a margin of more than a converted try may be too much for the Blues to make up.

I think it’s the perfect first leg result. Pre-match, on the beer train and in the pub, most people just hoped for a win by eight points or more.

For me, we have the cushion we wanted, but surely not enough of a lead for players and fans to get complacent and then not know how to respond were Bedford to claw back a big lead.

One bad thing to get put of the way, not long after full-time I encountered a Bedford fan whose grapes were so sour they were probably lemons. Following his abuse of the referee, I tried to say that the man in the middle had made some bad calls both ways but that it had been a good game. This bloke was having none of it and walked away refusing to shake my hand. Never had an opposition fan do that before in 15 years.

Of course he was not representative of the rest of the home fans at all, who were otherwise all friendly in the ground and especially in the Cricketers. First time I’ve been in that pub, nice place.

So nice that those of us travelling back to London stayed until closing time and, after a quick stop at the takeaway for chip butties, just about made the 00.42 train back to the Smoke.

Finally asleep about 2.30am and don’t feel too bad this morning. Not drinking on the train back probably helped with that.

Back to the game, I recall one Bedford fan in the bar at half-time telling me that he thought Alex Tait was our best player in the first half, and I think he was probably the pick of our backs all night. Perhaps it’ll only take a couple more good performances to shut his critics up.

Warren Fury has certainly put in some work on his box kicks since Headingley, and I don’t remember ever seeing Oliver Tomazczyk that mobile. Will Welch tackled like a lion, while I haven’t seen Noah Cato that busy for a few games.

Scott MacLeod was my man of the match though. Even though the lineout was hairy, Scott showed good hands and aggression all around the pitch and was often a handy linkman when the backs got lively.

There will still be some nerves at KP on Wednesday, but hopefully a couple of early penalties or a quick try and we can relax a bit.

So far, so good.

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

Match preview: Bedford Blues v Newcastle Falcons

Thursday 23 May 2013 – 7.45pm

Goldington Road, Bedford

RFU Championship Final 1st leg

So this is it, the seven days we’ve been waiting for since, well, probably since Wasps last May. The seven days that will decide the Falcons’ immediate and perhaps long-term future.

Tomorrow night is the first leg of the playoff final against Bedford, with a flagless trip to Goldington Road the first half of the tie that will decide whether we will regain Premiership status immediately, or be condemned to another year in the Championship.

Not that I haven’t enjoyed the Championship, but we need to get back into the big league before the parachute money runs out and all of the problems that brings.

There is every reason to be optimistic – we have beaten Bedford thrice already this season, twice at Goldington Road, despite each time the Blues playing quite well and threatening to triumph. If our opponents do not indeed intend to go for promotion should they win the playoffs, it also means that our team, at least those who will be here next season, have so much more to play for.

This is Bedford’s first playoff final, having lost in the semis in each of the past three seasons. Last season it was London Welsh who defeated the Blues in the final four, in 2010/11 Worcester and Exeter in 2009/10. What that means is that Bedford have always lost in the playoffs to the team that has gone up – a good omen?

Promotion wasn’t this stressful last time out in 1996/97, but then we did lose at Bedford but crush them by almost 40 points at home if I remember right, so a defeat tomorrow night would not necessarily be disastrous. Just have to turn it around at KP. Still, probably best not to give Les Bleus any encouragement and if we win tomorrow night, I’d be 99% confident of winning the tie overall.

It seems that Mrs Gopperth has been able to time birth perfectly so Hor Jimmy is able to play, but surprisingly Joel Hodgson is not in the 22 named today. Suka Hufanga and Rob Vickers are the only starters who were also in the initial lineup in the British & Irish Cup Final last Friday, and Noah Cato is back from injury. Surprising omissions are also Tom Catterick and Jamie Helleur, though with five forwards on the bench the back places are limited.

Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Noah Cato, 13 Suka Hufanga, 12 Adam Powell, 11 Ryan Shortland, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Warren Fury, 1 Grant Shiells, 2 Rob Vickers, 3 Oliver Tomaszczyk, 4 Carlo del Fava, 5 Scott MacLeod, 6 Mark Wilson, 7 Will Welch (c), 8 Ally Hogg.

Replacements: 16 Michael Mayhew, 17 Jonny Golding, 18 Scott Wilson, 19 James Hudson, 20 Taiasina Tu’ifua, 21 Rory Lawson, 22 Waisea Luveniyali.

These are the players who have the task of getting a first-leg lead to take back to KP a week tonight. They will be backed by a couple of coachloads of Geordie fans and many more independent travellers. The beer train is booked.

Bedford team: 15 Ben Ransom, 14 James Stephenson, 13 Brendan Burke, 12 Mark Atkinson, 11 James Short, 10 Myles Dorrian, 9 Luke Baldwin, 1 Ricky Reeves, 2 Neil Cochrane, 3 Phil Boulton, 4 Mike Howard, 5 Paul Tupai, 6 Gregor Gillanders, 7 Darren Fox (c), 8 Nick Fenton-Wells.

Replacements: 16 Scott Spurling, 17 Dan Seal, 18 Ben Gulliver, 19 Don Barrell, 20 Darryl Veenendaal, 21 Jake Sharp, 22 Ollie Dodge.

This is it. Let battle commence!

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

Match reaction: Newcastle Falcons 17-18 Leinster A



Friday 17 May 2013 – 7.30pm

Kingston Park, Newcastle

British & Irish Cup Final


Well, if the Falcons are going to lose one game out of the last three of the season, I suppose that was the one to lose.


It’s disappointing to lose the cup final as indeed it is any game, but we have bigger fish to fry this season and if we get past Bedford into the Premiership then last night will soon be forgotten.


That would be sad though because it was an absorbing game between two committed sides who both wanted to get their hands on silverware, but in the end a couple of mistakes cost the Falcons late in normal time and extra time, allowing Leinster’s reserves to secure the cup on the same night their first team won the Challenge Cup over in Dublin.


It was a good night for rugby, in contrast to today’s weather in Newcastle, and I think the Falcons played their team selection right, putting in some experienced players who needed games and had the chance to play themselves into the team for Thursday, and a few youngsters like Zach Kibirige and debutant Jamie Sole. I thought the latter had a solid game while he was on, certainly didn’t do a lot wrong.


Kibby was a bit quiet perhaps but took his try very well and kept up his record of scoring on every first team appearance.


Other than that, Joel Hodgson had a cracking game and was certainly in the running for man of the match. I don’t think I’ve seen a Falcons fly-half as lively as him in attack, his size seems to be an advantage in that, allowing him to squeeze and slip around defenders. He also made at least four try-saving tackles, two in the space of about ten seconds later in the second half, and for all that can be forgiven his dithering that led to the scrum and match-winning penalty for Leinster.


James Hall also showed why many Geordie fans are sad to see him go to Bristol with a solid game in the scrum and a few good runs.


Rory Lawson was clearly rusty, not starting well with a dropped ball, but got better as the game went on and gave our other scrum-halves a lesson in box kicks. Having said that, I was surprised by how good Chris Pilgrim was when he made his comeback from eight months out with injury.


If Pilgrim can and does play himself to a new contract, I hope he truly has ironed out some of the frustrations I and some other fans have had – looking at the referee too often rather than playing the game, and slow service – as last night his box kicks and passing were far better than I remember. He and Mike Blair might be a decent pair at nine next season.


Some other players did not perform quite so well, but then again I imagine some of these are in the “We need a squad to go up and these are the best we can get” category, and Mr Richards has a plan for his playing staff next season should we get promotion.


There was quite a good crowd last night for what was essentially a reserve game, even though it was officially a first team cup final. The numbers were no doubt boosted by the cheap tickets, or free for little ‘uns, and the hangover from Sunday. That might have led to the crowd being a bit subdued for a lot of the game, but certainly the atmosphere really cranked up in extra time.
That is a novelty that a lot of us probably haven’t seen at a live game before – just a shame we didn’t get penalties!


Right, that’s enough for now I think. No use dwelling on last night really, if we go up then this game will be barely a footnote in our history to add context to the playoff final win. As Paul Varley said in the programme last night, promotion is the absolute priority and in the end all that matters.



(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

Match preview: Newcastle Falcons v Leinster A


Friday 17 May 2013 – 7.30pm

Kingston Park, Newcastle

British & Irish Cup Final


I’m a bit busy these days so haven’t had much times for previews recently, but tomorrow night is a cup final, so I’m going to pull out something. It may not be the biggest prize we’re playing for this season, heck it’s not on the same planet as promotion to the Premiership, but the British & Irish Cup is a competition and a trophy there to be won.


Winning a cup can never be a bad thing, and in the 15-a-side game we haven’t won one since 2004.


After the semi-final draw pitched England v England and Ireland v Ireland, we host Leinster’s reserves at KP tomorrow night, with the Falcons having pitched the ticket prices well to get a good crowd – £10 for adults and kids for free.


Leinster A topped their pool with 22 points, two ahead of Pontypridd, with four wins from their six group matches. A 25-23 loss away to the Welsh side in week two still yielded a bonus point, and a last day draw at West Park with Leeds meant that Pontypridd’s five-point win over Jersey in April was academic.


In the quarter-finals, the fifth seeds were sent to Bristol and triumphed 26-30 on the same weekend that Leinster’s first team beat Wasps in the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup. Andrew Conway, Andrew Goodman, James Tracy and Fionn Carr (not Fiona, as I first read it) were the try scorers at the Memorial Stadium.


Munster A were then sent packing in an all-Irish semi-final in front of 1,350 fans at Garryowen FC, to secure a final meeting with the Falcons as we beat Bedford the following day.


Leinster will be hoping to keep the cup in Ireland after it was won by Munster A a year ago, while the Falcons will want to become the third English champion in this tournament’s four seasons, following in the footsteps of Cornish Pirates in 2010 and Bristol in 2011.



The Falcons’ team is a mix of youth and experience, with a debut for Jamie Sole and possibly James Hallam off the bench, while Zach Kibirige is back in the team too for the first time since New Year’s Day. Alex Crockett, Andrew Higgins, James Hall and Chris York get rare starts and James Hudson is the captain on what will either be his final or penultimate home game as a Falcon.


Falcons: 15 Jamie Sole, 14 Zach Kibirge, 13 Alex Crockett, 12 James Fitzpatrick, 11 Andrew Higgins, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Rory Lawson, 1 James Hall, 2 Rob Vickers, 3 Scott Wilson, 4 Sean Tomes, 5 James Hudson (c), 6 Ollie Stedman, 7 Richard Mayhew, 8 Chris York.


Replacements: 16 Michael Mayhew, 17 James Hallam, 18 Scott MacLeod, 19 Taiasina Tu’ifua, 20 Chris Pilgrim, 21 Waisea Luveniyali, 22 Michael Tait



Leinster’s team:


15 Fionn Carr, 14 Sam Coghlan-Murray, 13 Brendan Macken, 12 Noel Reid, 11 Andrew Boyle, 10 Cathal Marsh, 9 Luke McGrath, 1 Jack O’Connell, 2 Aaron Dundon, 3 Michael Bent, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 5 Mark Flanagan, 6 Dominic Ryan, 7 Conor Gilsenan, 8 Jordi Murphy (c).


Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Martin Moore, 18 Leo Auva’a, 19 Daniel Leavy, 20 Adam Griggs, 21 Jordan Coghlan, 22 Adam Byrne.




(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

Match reaction: Newcastle Falcons 15-6 Leeds Carnegie

Final countdown

Sunday 12 May 2013 – 1.15pm

Kingston Park, Newcastle

RFU Championship semi-final 2nd leg


Wow, what a game! Low on technical quality perhaps but not low on tension and excitement and that’s good enough for me. After all the doom and gloom of last week following Monday’s debacle at Headingley, we are now potentially 160 minutes away from the Premiership!


The Falcons pulled out their best performance for weeks when it mattered most and though Leeds attacked at the end, we were good value for the win that was by more than the required six-point margin. Maybe it didn’t have to be so nervy but it just made the victory so much sweeter and relieving at the final whistle.


Now it’s off to Bedford again next week for the first leg of the final, after hopefully winning the British & Irish Cup Final this Friday.


Things never go easy do they? We managed to take relegation down to the wire, we’ve won two horrifically exciting cup finals, and now it needed five penalties and some last-gasp defending to keep the dream of a quick return to the Premiership alive. I suppose, as I say, it just makes it more enjoyable.


Someone actually said to me before the game that he hadn’t enjoyed this season because for a lot of the time we’ve been winning, if not easily, then at least comfortably. It was certainly not like that yesterday and probably the finals won’t be either, and then next season we’ll want to relax again when we’re screaming while two points down with a minute to go yet again.


In the end it was probably no surprise that there were several changes to the team from the first leg, though Suka Hufanga was certainly a shock. I think he played far better than Tulip did a week ago though. Alex Tait had one of his best games for the Falcons I thought, Leeds had clearly identified Chip as a weakness under the high ball but he fielded everything he had to and they eventually gave up. Tait also contributed in attack with some charges from the back, even if the rest of the team didn’t always seem quite so enthusiastic.


It’s fair to say I haven’t been Warren Fury’s biggest fan this season, but yesterday apart from a kick straight to touch in the first half and giving Leeds the ball back in the dying minutes I thought he looked a lot sharper and made better decisions than at Headingley. I’d still put Lawson back in when he’s fit mind.


The forwards seemed to do better with Grant Shiells in there and the added beef of Matt Thompson and Carlo del Fava. Overall, the team appeared far more aggressive and up for the game, compared to last Monday when they looked like they expected to coast through. Perhaps after so many months the complacency that many believe was almost our downfall and the team will give Bedford the respect they deserve in the final.


Can’t wait for that one, Goldington Road is a cracking little ground and there will be a big crowd, hopefully plenty of away fans despite the unfortunate scheduling.


But for now, whatever happens in the play-off finals, at least Friday should be a good night and hopefully some silverware.



(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)