NEWCASTLE Falcons and their supporters were yesterday given a taste of how rugby used to be, the once-grand surroundings of Otley hosting their relocated Championship tie with Leeds.
They were given a fair old fright, sodden conditions and fired-up opposition combining to give the Championship pace-setters arguably their closest shave in a season where cruise-control has been enough to keep them ahead of the traffic.
Stands of wood and corrugated iron, coupled with vast concrete terraces, conjured up images of Roger Uttley and his North of England team dismantling the 1979 All Blacks.
The famed Yorkshire stubbornness was on show as those manning the barbecue steadfastly refused to admit defeat despite the horizontal rain lashing against the charcoal.
In the absence of such luxuries as a media facility, director of rugby Dean Richards delivered his post-match press conference from the packed terrace where the hundreds of travelling supporters bellowed out his name, nursing a desperately-needed coffee to try and regain some feeling after a freezing and saturating 80 minutes.
He joked: “I’m not sure who won it in the end, because all I could see were 30 players wearing brown.
“I was shouting at the touch judge for one of their guys being off-side, until I realised he was one of ours. It was just one of those days.”
The change of scenery seemed to have ignited the imagination of a vast and vocal away following.
Despite an unusually early start time, the league leaders were not caught napping as Jimmy Gopperth slotted a third-minute penalty on the back of persistent pressure in Leeds’ half.
They kept up the point-per-minute pattern when Ryan Shortland collected an inside pop from Tom Catterick for a fleeting try down the left – the visitors playing a useful advantage from a midfield knock-on. Gopperth chipped over the extras.
With James Hudson’s line-out pilfering stopping Leeds at source, the unbeaten table-toppers kept their line unbroken.
Home fly-half Joe Ford, drafted in at short notice following Rory Clegg’s recall by Harlequins, held his footing on the muddy surface to slot over a penalty just past the quarter mark.
Stevie McColl continued to show the form which has earned him rave reviews around the circuit.
Should Newcastle reach their promotion target, the out-of-contract full-back is well worth a look and some of his forwards also put themselves in the shop window in a creditable close to the half which kept the interval deficit at 10-3.
Newcastle had their chances, a late dab from Catterick forcing a five-metre scrum from which the visitors were again penalised, their welter of possession in the Leeds 22 failing to yield tangible reward. Kicking towards the bulk of their travelling fans for the second half rather than the 21 men and a dog (a black Labrador, for those wondering) on the open terrace at the opposite end, Newcastle tried with varying degrees of success to raise their intensity.
Leeds’ policy of not committing numbers to the breakdown – a hallmark of rugby league great James Lowes’ coaching input – ensured plenty of bodies to man the midfield defence and there was even a flutter in the Falcons’ rearguard when Newcastle native Fred Burdon broke in behind only to knock-on in contact. Richards added: “Leeds got through us twice which was disappointing, but our scramble defence was good and kept us out of trouble on those occasions.
“The one try we did score was a fantastic effort considering how difficult the conditions were and, despite the score-line creeping a bit close, I was delighted with the result in what we always knew was going to be a tough assignment.”