Jimmy Gopperth’s majestic display inspired Newcastle to an enthralling victory at relegation rivals Sale to secure the visitors’ place in next season’s Guinness Premiership.
The Kiwi’s inspirational kicking display secured the Falcons’ fourth away win of the season, adding to his earlier try and Micky Young’s effort. Despite being billed as the biggest game in Sale’s history, the home side faltered to leave the 2006 champions dangling dangerously over the precipice.
Newcastle edged the first of two mammoth relegation tussles over the next three days, with the Sharks plunged deeper into the mire going into the final game of the season. Although they got a losing bonus point, things could potentially get worse if Worcester win at Leeds on Sunday.
Heading into the clash, Sale were boosted by the return from illness of fly-half Charlie Hodgson, who paired with Richard Wigglesworth at half-back. Meanwhile, the Falcons’ hopes of securing a vital victory were dented before kick-off with the news skipper Carl Hayman had failed a late fitness test.
Despite being named in the initial starting XV, a back spasm meant the talismanic tight-head prop had to be replaced by 19-year-old Keiran Brookes, with Gopperth stepping in as skipper. The Kiwi immediately led by example, showing why he is the top goal kicker in the Guinness Premiership with two penalties in the opening 12 minutes.
Newcastle were stretching Sale’s back line and Gopperth penetrated in the 21st minute, finding the gap to score under the post, before duly converting. The visitors were looking unfazed despite recent drubbings, but were soon pegged back by Hodgson’s penalty in the 25th minute.
The Sharks looked resurgent as the half wore on and grabbed a try five minutes before half-time, playing the ball from right to left with aplomb to allow Marika Vakacegu to bounce over in the corner. Hodgson converted but Newcastle headed into the break with a nine-point lead, after Gopperth struck his third and fourth penalties of the evening.
The 26-year-old racked up another penalty for the Tynesiders shortly after the restart, before Hodgson brought Sale back with three quickly dispatched penalties. The Sharks were dominating the second half and the England international levelled the scores with 20 minutes remaining, with a well-struck drop goal.
Newcastle were on the back foot but superb work from the forwards allowed Micky Young to capitalise on poor Sharks defending to bundle over in the corner. Gopperth converted sensationally but the end-to-end nature of the match continued with Hodgson scoring a penalty from the restart to break through 1,700 career points.
Then Sale took the lead for the first time with only minutes remaining, moving the ball from right to left to allow Kristian Ormsby to go over in the corner. Hodgson missed the conversion to keep the crowd on tenterhooks, allowing Gopperth to retake the lead. And the former’s late missed drop goal allowed the Falcons to eke out the win.