Carnegie battlers defying the odds yet again

Picking a winner in the Grand National is easier than betting on the fortunes of Leeds Carnegie.

Long odds at Christmas and a closed book in late February after defeat to Newcastle, the Yorkshire club are now favourites to win the two-horse race to avoid relegation after clinching a sensational victory at Kingston Park.

Neil Back’s men have been stuck in the stalls for most of the season.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

And when they trailed Newcastle by 11 points in early March, the race looked to have finally been run with Leeds running out of fences.

But whatever Leeds lack in ability, they make up for in enormous heart.

Their utmost belief in their ability to defy the odds has characterised their most recent stay in the Premiership.

That such a stay could still be extended into a third season says everything about their mentality and determination.

For this was an 80-minute relegation shootout that mirrored their season.

Down and out after 33 minutes as Newcastle built a 20-7 lead, the survival instincts that have served Back’s charges so well returned in the nick of time as the fear factor of a return to the second tier grew larger.

Sixty minutes in and they were dreaming again of European Cups, a third win in five edging them closer to return trips to Leicester and Bath and such famous arenas.

Then indiscipline, hesitancy and nerves took hold once again, and that same old feeling of ‘close but no cigar’ returned as Jimmy Gopperth kicked Newcastle towards victory.

Until, with 90 seconds to go, Adrian Jarvis – a mid-season acquisition from Bristol whose purchase sums up the pool of talent Leeds have to rely on – dropped into the pocket 35 metres from the posts and arrowed home a drop goal that gave Back’s men a priceless one-point lead.

Even then, Leeds flirted with giving Gopperth another easy three points to retake the win and send the Yorkshire club down, but they got bodies behind the ball and ground down the clock to seal a victory that all and sundry knew was non-negotiable.

The lead had changed hands four times in that second half alone.

Credit to Jarvis for having the nerve to sink two drop goals at the death, and for kicking nine more precious points. He did still, though, hit the posts with one penalty, the sixth time he has struck the paintwork in five games.

The forwards were again a destructive unit. Led by Steve Thompson, who was in imperious form, the England hooker set the tone of defiance with a 22nd-minute try after Newcastle had built a 10-point lead.

The Falcons, led by opening try-scorer Micky Young at scrum-half, were threatening to end the two-horse race inside 40 minutes with a flying, purposeful start.

With the wind at their backs, Gopperth penned Leeds back with booming kicks. But Leeds were content to make the hard yards on the ground.

Michael Stephenson, against his former club, and Henry Fa’afili were willing runners, while Thompson – who led the side in the absence of injured captain Marco Wentzel – Hendre Fourie, Kearnan Myall and Alfie To’oala softened the home defences with surging runs.

Newcastle’s response to Thompson’s pick and drive try was swift, Jeremy Manning finding a gap inside Luther Burrell to crash over. Two more kicks from Gopperth gave the scoreline a worrying look.

Leeds looked nervous, and porous in possession. Then, when it all seemed one-way traffic, Leeds seized yet another lifeline.

On the stroke of half-time, Fourie broke from midfield and fed Burrell on the left. He played in winger Pete Wackett, who scampered across the line. Complete with Jarvis’s conversion, it changed the whole complexion of the game.

“When they went in at half-time they were jumping for joy and that was the one that killed us,” accepted Falcons head coach Alan Tait in the aftermath.

And 11 minutes into the second half, Carnegie took the lead for the first time, a sustained spell of pressure that initially met great resistance from the Falcons, was penetrated by Australian prop Gareth Hardy, Jarvis adding the extras.

Two vital interventions, firstly an interception from Fa’afili then a stolen lineout from Danny Paul, kept Newcastle at bay as they began to realise the hole being dug for them.

Cue the nerve-jangling last 20 minutes. Two penalties from Gopperth transformed a four-point deficit into a two-point lead.

Leeds hit back, a sustained spell that really should have been finished off with a fourth try that would have given them an attacking bonus point, was neglected in favour of a close-range drop goal from Jarvis that nudged them back in front by a point.

With New Zealander Gopperth on the field and six minutes on the clock, it was never going to be enough.

So it proved on 76 minutes as the hosts edged back ahead, before Leeds responded again with Scott Mathie driving them to the brink of the 22 and feeding Jarvis for his clincher.

Newcastle Falcons: Manning (Bobo 54), Fielden, Eves, Tu’ipulotu, Tait, Gopperth, Young (Pilgrim 44); Golding (Shiells 59), M Thompson (Vickers 35), Murray (Brookes 72), Swinson (Levi 76), Van der Heijden, Wilson, Welch (Gray 62), Hogg. Unused replacement: Vickerman.

Leeds Carnegie: Stephenson, Blackett, Fa’afili, Burrell, Wackett (Tadulala 70), Jarvis, Mathie; Hardy (Denman 76), Swainston (Gomez 29), Browne, Hohneck, Myall, Fourie, To’oala (Paul 52). Unused replacements: Nilsen, Oakley, White, Lewis-Pratt.

Referee: A Small (RFU).