Newcastle are the early surprise of a strange season. They started the round second behind Exeter, winning their first three matches before being awarded the fourth and they were unfortunate to leave here with nothing after forcing Bristol to plunder their deep reserves. It is little wonder that some of the Premiership’s more established brethren are trying to use the pandemic as an excuse to pull up the trapdoor marked relegation.
The Falcons took the game to Bristol from the start even if their first attack ended with the Bears scoring when Tom Arscott’s pass off-balance was picked off by Callum Sheedy on his 10-metre line for Siva Naulago to score. Bristol had a potent back division with Charles Piutau, playing his first match for three months, Naulago and Semi Radradra in harness for the first time, but they were underpowered and spent much of the first half in retreat. They gave away so many penalties under pressure that Dave Attwood was sent to the sin-bin after 30 minutes.
Newcastle regularly made ground and it was through a series of pick‑and‑goes that they created the room for Toby Flood to slip a short pass to George Wacockecoke who reacted to Sheedy and Radradra rushing up in front of him by taking the outside arc and exploiting the wing Ioan Lloyd drifting out of position.
Bristol have often needed advice at the interval from their director of rugby, Pat Lam, and it was no different here. They led 14-10 against the run of play, their threat perceived rather than apparent although Piutau displayed it when he picked up a bouncing ball 15m from Newcastle’s line and dismissed three tacklers.
Bristol may have been on the back foot for long periods, but they have developed an unquenchable spirit under Lam which saved them at least three tries. The hooker Jamie Blamire was held up over the line by his opposite number George Kloska in the first half and the wing Ben Stevenson was tackled short of the line by Naulago after the Bears quickly closed down an overlap.
Mark Wilson scored Newcastle’s second try a minute before the interval after a series of lineouts, scrums and mauls looked to have yielded nothing despite Attwood’s absence but Bristol, needing just a few seconds more than at the start, extended their 14-10 lead with a simple try from a lineout two minutes after the restart. Joe Joyce caught the ball and in the same movement, palmed it to Nathan Hughes as the No 8 ran to the back of the set piece. Newcastle’s loose forwards stayed in position leaving the rather slighter scrum-half Sam Stuart as the last guard standing, if not for long.
Newcastle were not deflected and they were again denied, this time by Piers O’Conor who somehow got under Matías Orlando after tackling his opposite number on the line. The Falcons kept going and again cut Bristol’s lead to four points when Philip van der Walt finished off a series of drives. Newcastle’s problem was that as soon as they put themselves in a position to take the lead, they conceded. When Sheedy kicked a penalty to touch, Kloska finished off a 15m driving maul after Radradra and Luke Morahan had joined in. Kyle Sinckler was at the heart of it having come off the bench and the England prop’s introduction coincided with the forward contest becoming more even.
Bristol were denied what would have been a contender for try of the season after a series of offloads over 60m was finished off by Hughes, but a review found the initial pass by Radradra to Lloyd at the back of his hand was forward. All that remained was a Sheedy penalty, but this is a very different Newcastle to the side that was relegated two seasons ago.
“We were missing the spine of our side,” the Newcastle director of rugby, Dean Richards, said. “We gave away soft tries and did not take our opportunities but against a team full of stars we showed we can compete with the best.”
Lam paid tribute to the Falcons, saying: “I am happy if not satisfied. They [Newcastle] are a tough team and we were never safe. It took a massive defensive effort.”