Tane Tu’ipulotu scored the winning try in added time as Newcastle snatched a dramatic victory over Harlequins to reach the LV= Cup final.
The Falcons had trailed 13-3 during a first half dominated by Harlequins before man of the match Jimmy Gopperth inspired a comeback after the interval. The New Zealand fly-half guided Newcastle into the lead with a breakaway try and three penalties only for Harlequins to hit back in a see-saw encounter with a try from full-back Mike Brown.
Rory Clegg’s touchline conversion with nine minutes remaining seemed to have put the game safe for Harlequins – but Newcastle were not done yet. With time up on the clock, Gopperth and Alex Tait combined to send Tu’ipulotu over in the corner and seal Newcastle their first cup final appearance since they won the Powergen Cup in 2004.
The Falcons will meet either Gloucester or the Newport Gwent Dragons at Franklin’s Gardens on March 20.
For Harlequins, it was the second time in a week they had led against Newcastle and found a way to lose the game – having been beaten in Aviva Premiership Rugby at Kingston Park last weekend.
It had all started so promisingly for the hosts too, with scrum-half Karl Dickson scooting over for the opening try inside the first minute. Clegg added a penalty to his conversion as Harlequins raced into a 10-0 lead inside five minutes and could have been out of sight by the interval. Instead they only led 13-6.
But Harlequins wasted four golden try-scoring opportunities, twice being penalised within sight of the line and twice knocking on.
Joe Marler, who trained with England earlier in the week, proved once again why he has caught the eye of Martin Johnson and Graham Rowntree with an eye-catching performance – and not just because of his maroon mohican haircut.
The 17 stone 10lb loose-head prop made ground with every ball carry and his charging runs into Newcastle territory twice took Harlequins to within touching distance of the try-line. On both occasions Harlequins were penalised at the breakdown and came away with nothing before losing flanker Will Skinner, who hobbled out of the game injured.
Tempers then boiled over when Harlequins lock Ollie Kohn clashed with Tim Swinson on the touchline and tried to separate the Newcastle flanker from his head-gear. Quins’ Samoan flanker Maurie Fa’asavalu, the former St Helens rugby league player, emerged furious from the melee and took out his anger with two storming runs.
Newcastle had been reduced to 14 men – and fallen 13-3 down – by then after lock Andrew van der Heijden was sin-binned for killing the ball. Fa’asavalu brushed aside a clutch of Newcastle defenders as he returned a clearance kick but Harlequins could not take advantage.
Ugo Monye cut through a gaping hole in the Newcastle defence and floated a pass wide for Brown and Kohn took it on, but the ball was knocked on with Harlequins just a yard from the line. Harlequins came again with George Lowe jinking through but, when Brown flicked the pass wide for Monye, he was guilty of spilling the ball with the line in sight.
Newcastle eventually built some pressure in the Harlequins half with centre James Fitzpatrick crashing through Clegg’s tackle and Gopperth accepted the chance to land a second penalty.
Harlequins paid the price for their profligacy after the interval when they failed to protect the ball after another surging run from Marler, and Newcastle pounced. Gopperth streaked clear from 60 metres, outpacing the retreating Monye to score under the posts and then slot a conversion followed by a penalty which put Newcastle ahead.
Harlequins refused to panic. Another drive from Marler earned them an attacking platform and they pounded away at the Newcastle line. The Falcons defended defiantly but eventually Harlequins created the overlap and Clegg fired the pass out for Brown to dive over in the corner.
Clegg’s touchline conversion meant Newcastle had to score a try to win it – and they did, with Gopperth pulling the strings and Tu’ipulotu supplying the finishing touch.