Newcastle are the early surprise of a strange season. They started the round second behind Exeter, winning their first three matches before being awarded the fourth and they were unfortunate to leave here with nothing after forcing Bristol to plunder their deep reserves. It is little wonder that some of the Premiership’s more established brethren are trying to use the pandemic as an excuse to pull up the trap-door marked relegation.
The Falcons took the game to Bristol from the start even if their first attack ended with the Bears scoring when Tom Arscott’s off-balance pass was picked off by Callum Sheedy on his 10-metre line for Ratu Naulago to score. Bristol had a potent back division with Charles Piutau, playing his first match for three months, Siva Naulago and Semi Radradra in harness for the first time, but they were underpowered at forward and spent much of the first half in retreat as they gave away penalties under pressure, so many that Dave Attwood was sent to the sin-bin after 30 minutes.
Newcastle regularly made ground and it was through a series of pick-and-gos that they created the room for Toby Flood to slip a short pass to George Wacokecoke, who reacted to Sheedy and Radradra rushing up in front of him by taking the outside arc and catching wing Ioan Lloyd out of position.
Bristol have often needed advice at the interval from their director of rugby Pat Lam to and it was no different here. They led 14-10 against the run of play, their threat perceived rather than apparent although Piutau showed what they had in reserve when he picked up a bouncing ball 15 metres from Newcastle’s line and dismissed three tacklers.
The home side may have been on the back foot for long periods, but they have developed an unquenchable spirit under Lam which saved them at least three tries. The hooker Jamie Blamire was held up over the line by his opposite number George Kloska in the first half, while the wing Ben Stevenson was tackled short of the line by Naulago after the Bears quickly closed down an overlap.
Mark Wilson scored Newcastle’s second try a minute before the interval after a series of lineouts, scrums and mauls looked to have yielded nothing despite Attwood’s absence, but Bristol – needing just a few seconds more than at the start – extended their lead with a simple try from a lineout.
Joe Joyce caught the ball and, in the same moment, palmed it to Nathan Hughes as the No 8 ran to the back of the set-piece. Newcastle’s loose forwards stayed in position leaving the scrum-half Sam Stuart as the last guard standing. With Hughes in full stride, he went low but it was not an even contest.
Newcastle were not deflected and after being denied a try by Piers O’Conor, who somehow got under Matías Orlando after tackling his opposite number short of the line. The Falcons had earlier been called back for not using the ball from a scrum when ordered to, although as it never became stationary it looked a premature call.
They kept going and again cut Bristol’s led to four points when Philip van der Walt, who like Kloska and Orlando was making his Premiership debut, finished off a series of drives. Newcastle’s problem was that as soon as they put themselves in a position to take the lead, they conceded and when Sheedy kicked a penalty to touch, Kloska finished off a 15-metre driving maul after Radradra and Luke Morahan had joined in. Kyle Sinckler was at the heart of it having come off the bench and his introduction coincided with the forward contest becoming more even.
Bristol were denied what would have been a contender for try of the season after an orgy of offloads over 60 metres was finished off by Hughes, but a review found that the initial pass by Radradra to Lloyd at the back of his hand was forward. All that remained was a Sheedy penalty, but this is a very different Newcastle to the side that was relegated two seasons ago.