London Irish slipped to their first Guinness Premiership defeat since the opening day of the season against battling Newcastle at a blustery Madejski Stadium on Sunday.
Last season’s finalists failed to produce anything like that form in a disjointed, error-strewn performance. It was the first time in eight attempts the Falcons had beaten the Exiles and, despite failing to register a try, they go back to the north-east with a third straight Guinness Premiership win under their belts.
Irish’s Tongan number eight Chris Hala’ufia scored the only try of a poor match but that, and a bonus point, will be of little consolation to head coach Toby Booth.
A powerful Irish scrum gave Ryan Lamb an early penalty opportunity from the halfway line, but the kick was just out of his range. From similar distance, Peter Hewat’s eighth minute attempt also fell short.
Jimmy Gopperth slotted a penalty in the 14th minute to give the Falcons the first score of the match and added another shortly afterwards when Irish went off their feet at a ruck on their own 22. Irish committed a serious of uncharacteristic errors, symbolised by Lamb kicking the ball dead when aiming a penalty from hand for the corner.
Booth’s side’s discipline was also letting them down and Gopperth punished them to further extend the lead from the tee just before the half-hour mark. At last Irish gave their supporters something to cheer as they managed to break into the Falcons’ 22 for the first time, but a chance went awry with a misguided Elvis Seveali’i pass.
Lamb got Irish on the board with a 40-metre penalty five minutes from the break but off-the-ball misdemeanours saw a penalty given to Irish rescinded in the Falcons’ favour and Gopperth recorded a fourth successful kick to make it 12-3.
It could only get better in the second half for Irish and in the opening five minutes they exhibited more urgency and co-ordination than they had shown in the entire first period, Steffon Armitage going close with a typical surge.
Exiles full-back Jamie Lennard, a summer recruit from Doncaster, slotted a smart drop goal on 50 minutes and then Irish added vast experience to their malfunctioning back-line with the introduction of player/coach Mike Catt and much-travelled fly-half Chris Malone.
The change paid dividends, as fluent handling created good field position, from which the abrasive Hala’ufia launched himself over the line. Hewat inexplicably missed the conversion, so Irish trailed 11-12 heading into the final quarter.
Following a desultory hour, the game at last came to life with Newcastle going close when incisive running from Alex Tait and Gopperth took them to the brink of the line. However, the Falcons failed to capitalise on a clear overlap from a ruck under the Irish posts.
Then wing Charlie Amesbury’s 50-metre solo run was only repelled by frantic Irish scrambling defence. It was the visitors who continued to offer the greater threat. Gopperth’s fifth penalty, following a high tackle, gave Newcastle a four-point advantage with five minutes left and they held out to cement their new-found position in the top half of the table.