Falcons At 10 - 2003/04 Review, The Cup of Cheer
Nice time to score!
By Mark H
August 16 2005
2003/04 was very much a case of starting again for Falcons. The troubles of the previous season would need to be put behind them if the club were to avoid another struggle against relegation.
Losing Jonny Wilkinson and Stuart Grimes to the World Cup would be big losses over the first half of the season, but Rob Andrew had brought in Ben Gollings from Harlequins and the returning Garath archer from relegated
The Middlesex Sevens provided a satisfactory curtain-raiser to the season, with Falcons making the final, having beaten the Army in a semi-final classic. Winning the final, however, proved a step too far, but only after at 12-5 to
Sarries came up to
To accentuate the…well, to be frank, dive, everyone’s favourite referee ran to his touch judge, and then on to the posts. Great refereeing from Steve Lander – or is that refereeing that makes you teeth grate? Either way, penalty try and it was 20-3, the score at the break. Falcons scored whilst I was at that ice cream van, James Grindal going over, before the scrum half set up a sharp drop goal for Walder. The game had completely changed now, with Sarries going backwards, and after Hugh Vyvyan stepped inside two tackles he set up Warren Britz to storm over, and Walder’s conversion levelled the score.
Just one problem though – they didn’t know when to stop. Epi Taione got isolated on his own ten metre line, Richard Haughton picked up, and had a free run to the line. The points were going south 25-20.
With one home loss already, Falcons couldn’t afford another. Three penalties, two from Gollings and one from Walder were enough to beat
There were £5 seats on offer at Quins the following Saturday, but the fare that was on offer was not good. Falcons had just pulled the game back to 12-8 through a Gollings try and a tremendous forward effort when Mark Andrews was sent off for dropping his knee on Pat Sanderson. Silly, unnecessary and costly, as Paul Burke ended the day with all of the Quins points in the 18-11 victory. A week later, Falcons held a deserved 10-8 lead after a dire first half at
Sky visited for the first time on 25th October, together with a
A freezing cold Sunday saw an England World Cup quarter-final win over
Before that though, the focus of the entire rugby world was on
A lot of sore heads took the long trip to Reading the next day, and as if inspired by events on the other side of the world, the previously away win-less Falcons ended the Irish unbeaten home record in the rain, thanks to a try from Noon and three penalties from Walder, and then in injury time, Walnut’s drop goal stole the points. It was a very happy coach journey home for players and supporters alike. No doubt Rob Andrew, still in
Sky had already decided that they were coming north the following Saturday, and the World Cup came to, as Jonny and Lawrence Dallaglio took the trophy around the ground prior to kick off. Wasps went 13-0 up in front of a record crowd of 10,001 with tries from Tom Voyce and Kenny Logan, but Taione and May conjured up a superb move to send Gollings in to reduce the deficit to 16-7 at the break. Playing with the gale in the second half, Falcons pressed intently and went in front after a try by May and some excellent place kicking from Walder. Victory was not to be though, with Peter Richards scoring a late try for Wasps.
The following day saw the Powergen Cup draw, and encouragingly, Falcons were drawn at home to Irish, with the other three ties being Sale v Saracens, Leeds v Bath, and – bringing a big smile to Sunday Grandstand guest Josh Lewsey – Wasps v Pertemps Bees. The semi-final draw that followed minutes later provided another home tie – but this time against the winners of Wasps-Bees. Hands up who didn’t think “it’s Wasps if we win then”?
Two weekends of European action followed, with the first round of the Challenge Cup, and a two legged tie against VRAC of Valladolid. What the Spaniards lacked in ability, they more than made up for in spirit, and after a 71-10 win in
A trip to Bath was set for the last Saturday before Christmas, and the home side made it eleven wins out of twelve with a 20-10 victory, the bonus point that Falcons had being lost by an injury time Olly Barkley penalty. The post-Christmas game saw
And then…Wilkinson went to tackle John Clarke on the harder West Stand side of the pitch, and stayed down. Prolonged treatment couldn’t keep him on the pitch, and off he went to spend what turned out to be the rest of the season on the sidelines. He had played just 53 minutes. Dave Walder came on and we all wondered how the team would react.
Quite well actually. Matt Thompson produced a chip from roughly the spot of Wilkinson’s injury, and despite a chase back from Bruce Reihana, he was adjudged to have not grounded the ball correctly by referee Rowden, and Michael Stephenson just managed to touch down before the ball ran dead. From the kick off, Saints recovered the ball, drove forward, committed three offences on the trot (knock on, obstruction, then forward pass) and with a four on two space, if the ball had got past Walder it was a try for Saints. Walnut went for the interception, got it, and ran ninety metres with only lock Mark Connors in pursuit to score under the posts. Saints pulled one penalty back, and then with another, elected to go for the posts rather than the corner even though it was injury time, and Falcons had won a game 23-19 that in all honesty they probably should have lost.
Which was good.
Especially as a week later, Falcons lost a game they should have won. A 29-25 defeat at home to Quins, with prop Ceri Jones scoring the winning try in the ninth minute of injury time, was a painful blow, with the domination enjoyed in the game, and the fact that Walder’s 85th minute drop goal looked as if it had won it.
A third home game in successive Sundays brought Montferrand in the second round of the European Challenge Cup, and it was fair to say that no-one really thought that the 10-3 win gained by Falcons would be enough. When the aggregate lead was seventeen points with just over twenty minutes left in the second leg, it looked like a major upset was on the cards. An agonising 85th minutes try by Merceron meant that Falcons were out at the earliest stage in the club’s history.
One thing the early exit did bring was two weeks off, and by the time 7th February and a trip to Kingsholm came round, Falcons should have been ready. Ummm…three first half tries soon put paid to that, and despite tries from May and Britz, a 36-12 defeat resulted. The poor run was to continue, but after leading
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the first day defeat, there was no doubt about this one. For an hour, Sarries outclassed Falcons in all areas, from the first minute when a Walder drop goal was charged down. From behind his own posts, the genius that is Thomas Castaignede dummied his way past Hall Charlton and set off three quarters of the length of the field. His kick through, perfectly timed and weighted, was meat and drink for Richard Haughton to touch down. Despite Joe Shaw’s try ten minutes later, two more tries before the break gave Sarries a 19-8 lead, stretched after the break by a Castaignede penalty and another Haughton try, this time from only eighty metres. Combine this with binnings for Garath Archer (killing the ball) and Epi Taione (high tackle which had the home crowd baying for red), and you can see why at 32-8 with twenty minutes left, everyone thought that a big score was on the cards. Typically, Falcons woke up too late. Britz scored on 69 and Dowson 78 to make it 32-20, and then Walder intercepted the last play of the game and ran even further than his Northampton try to get a bonus point, make the final score 32-27, and leave both sets of supporters frustrated – Sarries for not killing the game off and letting Falcons back in, and Falcons for leaving it far too late. A similar fault in the next game would be a fatal blow to the season.
Grandstand had decided to cover the Powergen quarter-final from KP, but as I woke up in
Falcons had to take advantage of any rustiness that Irish had, and did so by going hard out for a try early on, but had to settle for a Walder penalty, wiped out by a Mapletoft effort five minutes later. Two more penalties were split before Charlton and Britz opened up the right side of Irish’s defence and allowed Stuart Grimes a stroll round under the posts. With it starting to snow again, the try really warmed the home support up. Two more penalties before the break, the Falcons one seeing Keiron Dawson binned, meant a 16-9 interval lead. Five minutes into the second half, Epi’s bullocking run down the left wing enabled him to create the space outside for Walder, and he celebrated his try by throwing a snowball at the North Stand. There were scares after that – Archer binned for a stupid stamp, and a tremendous try saving tackle from Joe Shaw – but Falcons were there, 24-12 winners, and had to wait 24 hours for confirmation of a semi-final against Wasps.
So when I got a text on my train journey home around 5.30 on the Sunday that read “Wasps 24 Pertemps Bees 28 we’re going to Twickenham”, I have to say that expectation of a semi-final win took the place of hope. The first division side had taken advantage of Wasps’ complacency, and booked a trip to KP in a fortnight’s time.
By 2.15 on Sunday 14th March, Falcons already knew that they would play
There were two league matches to be played before the final, and ironically both ended in draws, 30-all at Leeds where a very late Walder penalty from halfway was followed by an even later Gordon Ross miss; and a 25-all draw at home to Leicester, where Vyvyan and Mark Mayerhofler went a yard short of conjuring a last play winning try. All eyes could now concentrate on the cup final.
There was tragic news the next day though, when it was announced that Soa Otuvaka, who had collapsed whilst playing for
Cup final day was eventful. Early starts all round to get to Twickenham, only to find once there that a burger van had caught fire, and consequently the junior finals that preceded the main event were put back. The fourteen tickets turned out to be in an ideal position on the halfway line, and we could look forward to a memorable eighty minutes. None of us knew that it would be that memorable.
It was, without doubt, the greatest cup final ever. Falcons included James Grindal and Micky Ward in place of Charlton and Marius Hurter, and from the moment Britz went over in the seventh minute, the rollercoaster never stopped.
The lead barely lasted. Chris Mayor regained it with his try, before two nerveless penalties in quick succession made it 30-all with eight minutes left. Another transgression – Stephenson not rolling away – and Hodgson made a superb kick from forty metres on the angle. This really was a case of last to score wins. From the kick off, the ball was fed back to Hodgson, whose clearance kick was charged down by Vyvyan. In the scramble for the ball, Hanley had to dot down over his own line. A five metre scrum and this might be the last chance. Walder drop goal to level it?
Now if you remember the 2001/02 review, I mentioned that you could pinpoint moments when seasons turned. Don’t ask me why, but from the moment Falcons got past Rotherham, I was convinced that the name on the cup was
No mater what I write next, I can’t do better than what I wrote at the time:-
“Huge picked up from the base of the scrum and made a lunge for the line but was stopped on the gain line. Hall had a go, and made no more than a couple of feet. A pair of hands got to the ball, and suddenly a black juggernaut was going for the line, before crashing down. A whistle. An arm. A TRY!!!!!”
Phil Dowson had done the trick, and Walder’s crucial conversion meant that
This did, however, mean that the season was effectively over with three games to play. Heineken Cup qualification was assured, so there would be no need for Wildcard matches. Turning up at
The luxury of the cup win gave Andrew the chance to experiment, and in the last home game of the season,
That was the high. The low was conceding a try with four minutes to go to bring Irish in range, and then a penalty in injury time to lose a game that should have been won. Now into May, there was still no league win since 28th December, and only one chance to change that.
The last game had banana skin written all over it. Rotherham, winless and with only two points all season, had moved their final game away from the hated Millmoor to the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield. Novelty or not, 5,203 turned up and saw the home side come as close as they had all season to a win, before tries from Stephenson and Jon Dunbar and the reliable Walder boot produced a 26-20 away win.
Wasps retained their title in the play-off final, beating league leaders
So what of the 2003/04 season? Cup victory aside, the league form was patchy at best, with ninth place being a poor return in a season where one team was so clearly worse than the others. No wins between late December and the last game was very annoying, as was the fact that Falcons got a league record thirteen bonus points, nine of them losing ones. Turn those nine losses into wins, and Falcons would have been at least third in the table, probably second.
Changes needed to be made, and there was the early announcement of the signing of Radike Samo from the ACT Brumbies. Watching him dominate the Super 12 final, we all licked our lips and waited. That, however, was only the start of the story of the 2004/05 season…pqs: qs: