Newcastle Falcons bowed out of the Gallagher Premiership with a home loss to Bristol Bears on Saturday at Kingston Park Stadium.
Trailing 5-0 at half-time and shipping further points in the second half, the Falcons will now regroup over the summer months before attacking life in the Championship.
Newcastle’s attacking intent was made clear from the off as they began the game with a period of ball-in-hand in the Bristol half, turning down a kick at goal from a penalty in search of greater gains.
Johnny Williams crossed the line from a Chris Harris break only for play to be pulled back for a knock-on, but the home side found themselves a try down from Bristol’s first real attack when a line-out in the right corner was worked infield, a series of close-range pick-and-goes eventually seeing the ball spun right for Charles Piutau to glide in.
A resurgent Bristol kept their foot on the accelerator with a concerted spell of pressure in the home half, the Falcons’ scramble and counter-ruck keeping them in the contest as a series of Bears attacks passed by without further points being added.
A scrappy opening period saw little in the way of fluent handling play, both teams trying in vain to chip over the blitz defence in the search for an attacking opening.
The Falcons ended the half the brighter of the two with a string of red-zone penalties, earned in no small part by the running of Adam Radwan, but their failure to turn close-range line-outs into points ensured they trailed 5-0 at the midway stage.
Newcastle started the second half strongly, Josh Matavesi breaking out of his own 22 and finding the supporting Johnny Williams for an attack which ended with Radwan being bundled into touch on the Bristol 22.
But it was Bristol who registered the first points of the half, the debatable awarding of a midfield knock-on handing them a scrum from which Piers O’Conor eventually scored, the centre cutting in from the left after a Charles Piutau break.
Callum Sheedy converted, and did so again just four minutes later when replacement Jack Lam was driven over by his latch men from a close-range pick and go to the right of the posts.
The Falcons were in no mood to lie down and embarked upon a period of sustained pressure in the Bears’ half, winning repeated penalties but frustratingly failing to turn them into tries as the visiting defence stood firm.
Callum Chick’s line-break gave the home side a glimmer of hope but the supporting runners were unable to hold onto possession, Newcastle regrouping and finally finding a try on 76 minutes.
It all came from a Radwan run on halfway, the winger racing down the left and earning the field position from which Stuart sniped round the base, the resulting ruck seeing Graham plough over from centimetres out.
Hodgson converted, and there was a further sting in the tail when Johnny Williams scored from an Alex Tait line-break to end a difficult season on a positive note.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Zach Kibirige, 13 Chris Harris (Josh Matavesi, 26), 12 Johnny Williams, 11 Adam Radwan, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Michael Young (captain, Sam Stuart, 10); 1 Sam Lockwood (Trevor Davison, 53), 2 George McGuigan (Santiago Socino, 40), 3 Logovi’i Mulipola (David Wilson, 55), 4 Calum Green (Jamie Blamire, 71), 5 Sean Robinson, 6 Callum Chick, 7 Gary Graham, 8 Nemani Nagusa (Evan Olmstead, 53).
Falcons scorers - Tries: Gary Graham, Johnny Williams. Conversions: Joel Hodgson.
Bristol Bears: 15 Charles Piutau (Mat Protheroe, 65), 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Piers O’Conor, 12 Siale Piutau (co-captain), 11 Luke Daniels, 10 Callum Sheedy (Tusi Pisi, 65), 9 Harry Randall (Nic Stirzaker, 57); 1 James Lay, 2 Harry Thacker, 3 John Afoa (Lewis Thiede, 71), 4 Ed Holmes, 5 Chris Vui, 6 Steve Luatua (co-captain), 7 Dan Thomas (George Smith, 55), 8 Nick Haining (Jack Lam, 40).
Bristol scorers - Tries: Charles Piutau, Piers O’Conor, Jack Lam. Conversions: Callum Sheedy 2.
Referee: JP Doyle. Attendance: 6,442.
Tait, Kibirige, Harris, Williams, Radwan, Hodgson, Young, Lockwood, McGuigan, Mulipola, Green, Robinson, Chick, Graham, Nagusa
Replacements Socino, Davison, Wilson, Olmstead, Blamire, Stuart, Flood, Matavesi
Piutau, Leiua, O'Conor, Piutau, Daniels, Sheedy, Randall, Lay, Thacker, Afoa, Holmes, Vui, Luatua, Thomas, Haining
Replacements Kloska, Woolmore, Thiede, Lam, Smith, Stirzaker, Pisi, Protheroe
referee: JP Doyle
assistant: Hamish Smales
assistant: Andrew Jackson
TMO: David Grashoff