Newcastle Falcons 15 Leeds Carnegie 6: Future still looks bright for Leeds despite loss to Falcons

Two years ago, Leeds and Newcastle finished level on points at the bottom of the Premiership – but it was the Yorkshire club who were relegated by virtue of an inferior points difference.

Ryan Burrows makes a good run down the wiing

Fast forward to this week and the two northern strongholds of rugby went at it again with a place back in the Premiership on the line.

This time, over 180 minutes of relentless competitiveness it was just four points that separated the two clubs, and again it was Newcastle who were left to breathe an almighty sigh of relief.

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Talk about fine margins.

The Falcons, having soared over the Championship all season long, just about had enough over the two legs to advance to the play-off final with Bedford later this month.

But boy did Leeds come close to clipping their wings.

Last Monday at Headingley, Diccon Edwards’s side gave Newcastle the fright of their lives with a five-point win that turned their own promotion aspirations from fanciful to genuine.

Yesterday at Kingston Park, they proved that was not a flash-in-the-pan with a defensive performance as committed as any they had to produce in their most recent Premiership seasons.

It was a gutsy effort, one that should fill every person with Leeds Carnegie close to their hearts with enormous pride.

If anything, Leeds were limited going forward, restricted by the relentless pressure exerted by Newcastle, the unseasonably wet conditions and, at times, their own inhibitions.

But to restrict Newcastle – who finished 31 points above them in the regular season – to one try over two games of rugby was a monumental effort.

So too was the way they stormed into the play-offs, winning their final six games when they knew one defeat would bring a premature end to their season.

That their campaign is over now will be hard to bear but there is much to take from the second half of a season in which Leeds Carnegie took significant strides forward.

They came of age with their performance against Newcastle last week.

They have shown great maturity throughout this run-in, as well as a desire to see how far this siege mentality can take them.

Tommy McGee has come in to shore up the forwards, and their defensive resilience has been a joy to behold, particularly yesterday when they tackled ferociously to deny Newcastle the points they craved to allow all at Kingston Park to breathe that little bit more easily.

Going forward, Leeds should be a lot stronger promotion prospects next season.

Should Newcastle finish the job against a Bedford side who don’t meet the criteria to gain access to the Premiership, then Bristol will be the only real consistent challengers to their promotion bid next season. London Welsh are in a mess after their one season in the top flight.

But Leeds have the infrastructure, the pedigree, the staff and a strong playing group, the majority of whom are coming back next season to complete the job they have come so close to finishing this season.

“We’re hurting now but we’ll regroup and go hard at it next year,” said David Doherty, the Leeds winger.

“We’ve got some great character moving forward and great team spirit.

“Right now it’s devastating for the team. They executed their game plan better, so fair play to them.

“But we’re all very proud to be Leeds Carnegie players and we’ll be stronger for this.”

Dean Richards was a relieved man after his Newcastle side escaped with their promotion hopes intact.

The Falcons director of rugby pulled a fast one on Leeds before kick-off, making five changes to the line-up he had originally announced three days before the game.

And his side were the faster out of the gate, with Jimmy Gopperth kicking them into the lead after good pressure in the Leeds 22.

Joe Ford had earlier snatched at a long-range drop goal attempt as the anxiety showed, while heavy rain prior to kick-off made for a slick surface and tricky conditions, with both sides guilty of handling errors.

A second Gopperth penalty on 18 minutes, after Stevie McColl had impeded Alex Tait as he chased a kick, doubled Newcastle’s advantage and erased Leeds’s overall edge. Gopperth missed one and then scored the next as Newcastle’s aerial bombardment kept Leeds in their own half.

A fourth place-kick after James Doherty was penalised for a high tackle on Adam Powell, was the least the Falcons deserved for a multi-phase attack on the visiting 22.

But at the restart, Newcastle flanker Mark Wilson knocked on and Ford kicked the points.

He was unable to repeat that on the stroke of half-time after Ryan Burrows and McColl at last created some running room, ensuring Newcastle led 12-3 at the break and by four points overall.

Ford, though, drilled over a drop goal to cut both deficits further as Carnegie came out in determined mood at the start of the second half.

Strong defence, particularly from Scott Freer, kept the Falcons at bay as they came closer than ever to a try, only to rely on yet another Gopperth kick.

During a one-sided second half, Leeds were required to out-tackle Newcastle at a ratio of six-to-one and their resilience was rewarded inadvertently by Gopperth, who when presented with two straightforward penalties to put the tie beyond reach, pushed both of them wide.

Further defiance on their own line created a turnover in the dying embers of the game that Leeds turned into a rare attack but Fred Burdon dropped a pass from Craig Hampson.

The final flurry ended when Josh Griffin spilled the ball under pressure as Leeds’s season – one that had blossomed so late and gives hope for the future – ultimately ended.

Newcastle Falcons: Tait, Catterick, Hufanga (Hodgson 78), Powell, Shortland, Gopperth, Fury; Sheils (Golding 52), Thompson (Vickers 68), Tomaszczyk (Hall 68), del Fava, MacLeod, Wilson (Tu’ifua 73), Welch, Hogg. Unused replacements: Hudson, Lawson

Leeds Carnegie: McColl, Goss, Griffin, Burdon, D Doherty, Ford, J Doherty (Hampson 57); Harris (Currie 52), Freer, Tussac (Imiolek 52), Green, Phillips (Beck 61), Baldwin (Walker 57), Rowan, Burrows. Unused replacements: Nilsen, Georgiou.

Referee: W Barnes (RFU).