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Falcons edge closer to safety with crucial win
GOING, going, but perhaps not gone. Newcastle Falcons remain rooted to the foot of the Aviva Premiership with three games remaining, but this evening's nerve-jangling 22-19 win over Sale Sharks means they are now within four points of London Wasps.
That gap will increase if Wasps take something from Sunday's home game with Gloucester, but with Falcons due to travel to Adams Park to face their relegation rivals on the final weekend of the season, their fate is edging back into their own hands.
Tonight's victory was crucial, with Falcons overturning a ten-point deficit to secure only their fourth league win of the season despite being outscored by three tries to one.
Tim Swinson scored Newcastle's only try midway through the second half, but as has been the case so often in recent years, the hosts owed their success to the boot of Jimmy Gopperth.
The fly-half kicked 17 of his side's 22 points and held his nerve to slot the decisive penalty with just three minutes left. It could yet be a kick that helps secure top-flight survival.
His efforts were watched by Dean Richards, who was at Kingston Park for the first time since he was confirmed as Falcons' new director of rugby for next season.
He cannot take up his position until the middle of August because he is currently serving a lengthy suspension for his part in the 'Bloodgate' scandal, but he could yet take over a Premiership side, something that would surely not have been the case had Newcastle failed to scrape home.
They made a decent start - Gopperth's first of five penalties edging them ahead from their opening attack - but the concession of two tries inside the opening 15 minutes left them with a mountain to climb.
Both tries were the result of some slick Sale attacking, but the first in particular should have been avoided by tighter defending.
Having successfully repelled an attacking surge down the left, Falcons were left horribly exposed when the Sale backs quickly switched the ball to the opposite flank. Johnny Leota fed Tom Brady on the overlap, and the winger slid in to score in the right-hand corner.
Sale's early dominance owed much to the astute kicking of their half-backs, and fly-half Nick Macleod set up his side's second try with a wonderful cross-kick that caught the Falcons defence napping.
Sam Tuitupou reached it with minimal effort, and his lay off was collected by second row James Gaskell, who powered over.
Macleod's conversion made it 12-3, but Falcons hauled themselves back into the game thanks to the dominance of their pack.
The Sale defence conceded six first-half penalties as they struggled to retain forward parity, with Gopperth converting four and hitting the post with another. Not for the first time this season, it was tempting to wonder what might have happened had Newcastle possessed a strong enough backline to make the most of their forwards' groundwork.
They could certainly have done with a couple of Sale's attacking runners, and nine minutes before the break, the visitors combined slickly again to claim a third try. Tuitupou released Brady down the touchline, but rather than going himself, the winger popped the ball inside for full-back Rob Miller to score.
The converted try left Sale 19-9 ahead, but Newcastle spent the rest of the first half camped close to their opponents' line. Gopperth's fourth penalty of the night was their only reward, but the momentum of the game had turned as the discrepancy between the performance of the two packs widened.
The gulf was even more pronounced in the second half, and Falcons finally made their physical dominance tell in the 53rd minute.
With the Sale defence rocking, Gopperth passed up the option of an inviting penalty in order to kick for touch. It proved an inspired move.
The line-out was collected at the front, the entire Falcons pack converged to squeeze skipper James Hudson towards the line, and Swinson was left with the job of flopping over.
Gopperth's conversion via the inside of the post tied the scores, and with Peter Stringer becoming an increasingly influential figure as he made his home debut at scrum-half, the hosts pushed frantically for the score that would put them ahead for the first time in the game.
It might have arrived with 11 minutes left, only for Gopperth to push yet another penalty attempt wide of the upright, but the New Zealander was handed a second chance to secure four priceless points with three minutes left. Sale were penalised for not rolling away, and from 30 yards, Newcastle's talisman made no mistake.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: Manning, Uys, Helleur, Fitzpatrick, Bedford (Goosen 45), Gopperth, Stringer; Golding, Vickers (Thompson 73), Murray, Swinson, Goode (Hudson 50), Tu'ifua, Welch, Hogg (Balding 50).
Replacements (not used): Shiells, Hall, Wilson, Chudley.
SALE SHARKS: Miller, Brady, Leota, Tuitupou, Cueto, Macleod, Peel; Sheridan (Dickinson 41), Jones (Ward 59), Buckley, Myall, Gaskell, Vernon (Easter 74), Seymour, Powell (Cobilas 59).
Replacements (not used): Holmes, Willis, Burrell, Addison.