ALL OUR YESTERDAYS: London Irish special
Although there was a longstanding social connection between Gosforth and London Scottish it was not until the establishment of national leagues that regular fixtures between Gosforth and the three London ‘exile’ clubs became a common feature.
The first fixture between Gosforth and London Irish was at Gosforth on February 20, 1988, in the second tier of the National Merit Table, the forerunner to the national leagues which were introduced the following season. Irish won 22-14 and were to dominate the fixture, with one exception, until the Falcons’ Premiership-winning season in 1997/8.
The exception was a dead rubber on Grand National Day, April 9, 1994.
Both clubs had already been relegated from Courage League Division One, and with just three league matches remaining Newcastle Gosforth’s sole points in a disappointing season in the top flight had come from a 9-9 draw at Kingston Park way back in September.
The club had parted company with Director of Rugby Mike Mahoney as soon as relegation had been confirmed, and head coach Steve Gustard had been put in charge of team affairs for the remainder of the season. Gustard himself was also absent from Sunbury that day as he was at Twickenham to see his son – future Harlequins director of rugby, Paul Gustard – playing for Newcastle Royal Grammar School in the final of the prestigious Daily Mail Cup, and so Steve Bainbridge was put in charge of the team.
As a reminder that the game was still amateur, an Irish player was seen leaving the home changing room during the final team talk minutes before kick-off to place a bet on the big race at Aintree!
Irish enjoyed the better of the early stages, kicking two penalties to lead 6-0, but Newcastle hit back with tries midway through the first half from Ross Wilkinson and Steve Douglas to lead 12-6 at the break.
An unconverted try and two further penalties gave Irish a 17-12 lead, but with just two minutes of normal time remaining the visitors’ pressure told when Paul Van Zandvliet went over in the corner to level the scores.
Banty Johnson’s touchline conversion secured the victory to give former British and Irish Lion Bainbridge a 100% record as a coach.
The victory was particularly meritorious given that Newcastle’s stand-out player that season, Richard Arnold, left the field with a serious knee ligament injury after half an hour. To prove that the result was no fluke, Newcastle did it again in the next match, beating Orrell 13-12 at Kingston Park.
**The Newcastle Gosforth side that day was:** D.Bennett; D.Casado; I.Chandler (rep.M.Tetlow); R.Wilkinson; T.Penn; D.Johnson; S.Douglas; M.Fraser; A.Hetherington; P.Van Zandvliet; F.Mitchell; J.Fowler; M.Corry; R.Hoole; R.Arnold.
It is not known who the mystery Irish gambler backed, but for the record the Grand National was won at 16 to 1 by Miinnehoma, owned by the (allegedly) hamster-eating ‘comedian’ Freddie Starr.
Despite Newcastle’s victory it was not a good day for Northumberland rugby. The RGS lost their cup final 12-17 to Mount St Mary’s College, Northern were relegated to North Division Two and Novocastrians to North East Division One.
There was a certain symmetry with the fixture the following season when Newcastle again had to travel to Sunbury in April. After another disappointing season the club had once again parted company with its director of rugby, with Alan Old standing down following a player delegation to the Board.
In a very tightly-contested second tier Newcastle had been staring a second successive relegation in the face with just three matches remaining, all away from home. Under interim coach Harry Patrick the team had secured an encouraging victory at Nottingham and had drawn at champions Saracens to secure their second-tier status, but they came off second best against Irish, then coached by Clive Woodward, losing 22-35.
Richard Arnold again failed to make it to half-time. After walking a disciplinary tightrope since his arrival from Taranaki in 1991 he received his second red card of the season to leave his team to play for 50 minutes with 14 men.
It was to the credit of the team that they were not overwhelmed as they scored tries through Martin Corry and Tim Penn (two). Simon Mason kicked two conversions and a penalty.
**The Newcastle side that day was:** S.Mason; T.Penn; R.Wilkinson; I.Chandler; DC.Casado; R.Cramb; G.Robson; M.Long; A.Hetherington; P.Van Zandvliet; F.Mitchell; R.Metcalfe; M.Corry; S.Cassidy; R.Arnold.
With the professional game less than six months away, Mason (pictured) left the club to join Orrell and was capped by Ireland. Fly-half Richard Cramb had played four times for Scotland and remains active off the field at Tynedale. Corry, who had joined the club whilst a student at Northumbria University, left to go to Bristol and was later to captain England and tour with the Lions, whilst lock Richard Metcalfe would later be capped by Scotland after he had left the Falcons for Northampton.
Arnie’s red card turned out to be somewhat fortuitous. He too left the club at the end of the season to join West Hartlepool, but his inevitable lengthy ban meant that he never got to play for them before being snapped up by Rob Andrew and returning to Kingston Park. As he had not turned out for West, he did not need to serve the usual three-month registration period on moving clubs.
Newcastle had to travel to Sunbury again the following year on the last day of the season, by which time the first of the Andrew recruits had served out their registration period, and so it was a much-changed Newcastle team that took the field against Irish who, along with Northampton, had already secured promotion to the top tier. Irish prevailed again, this time by a single point in a 29-28 victory.
It was a very different story the next time the teams were to meet, this time in the inaugural season of the Allied Dunbar Premiership.
Irish were still playing their home games at Sunbury when the Falcons travelled south on November 1, 1997, defending a 100% league record which was never threatened in a 35-19 win – the points coming through tries from Nick Popplewell (two), Ross Nesdale and Pat Lam, and 15 points from Andrew’s boot.
The unbeaten league record was still intact by the time of the return fixture on January 11, 1998. This time the Falcons scored eight tries in winning 46-13. The try-scorers were Jim Naylor (three), Garath Archer (two), Nesdale again, Inga Tuigamala and Gary Armstrong, with Andrew kicking two conversions and fullback Stuart Legg a third.
The Falcons bench included a certain Jonny Wilkinson, who had made his debut a fortnight earlier in a cup tie against Exeter. He did not in fact make his Premiership debut until March 25, by which time he had already been capped by England off the bench.
The Falcons’ dominance in the fixture was short-lived. Of the 53 fixtures between the two clubs since that first meeting back in 1988, Irish have won 33 and the Falcons just 19, with one match drawn.
One of the more notable Falcons victories came on December 10, 2000, in the quarter-final of the Tetley Bitter Cup.
The two teams had met in the league just five days earlier at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, with Irish winning 19-17. The Falcons made five changes for the cup-tie, with Wilkinson and Armstrong returning at half-back. They started poorly and seemed unduly affected by a neck injury to wing Garath Maclure after just eight minutes. Irish led 10-3 through a Junior Tonu’u try, converted by Barry Everitt, who also kicked a penalty in response to a fifth-minute penalty from Wilkinson. A second Wilkinson penalty on 33 minutes narrowed the gap to four points before Liam Botham went over for the Falcons’ first try, converted by Wilkinson, who added another penalty to establish a 16-10 interval lead.
The crucial score came eight minutes into the second half. The Falcons were awarded another penalty, and with everyone expecting a kick at goal Wilkinson took a quick tap and went over himself, adding the conversion for good measure.
Everitt and Wilkinson swapped penalties as the last ten minutes came with the Falcons holding a comfortable 26-13 lead. Arnie maintained his impressive record of failing to see out a match against Irish when his fifth yellow card of the season left the home side with 14 men to defend their lead, but they actually extended it due to a virtuoso try from Tuigamala.
His initial break created the momentum before Tom May and Wilkinson worked a double scissors to put Tuigamala in under the sticks, with Wilkinson inevitably converting. There was still time for Justin Bishop to run in a consolation try in added time for Irish, Everitt’s conversion leaving the final scoreline 33-20.
The Falcons went on to beat Sale 37-25 in the semi-final in January to set themselves up for their memorable Twickenham triumph against Harlequins in February.
**The Falcons’ team in the quarter final was:** M.Stephenson; G.Maclure (rep. E.Taione, 8 mins); L.Botham; T.May; I.Tuigamala; J.Wilkinson; G.Armmstrong; M.Ward; R.Nesdale; M.Hurter; H.Vyvyan; S.Grimes; R.Arnold (rep. J.Cartmell, 79 mins); A.Mower; J.Jenner.