Durham University rugby club 1st XV’s preparations for Wednesday’s huge BUCS semi-final ended with an encouraging 19-22 loss to a powerful Newcastle Falcons Development side.
An excellent team performance, including two impressive tries as well as nine points from the consistent boot of England Students fly-half Mike Ward, was not enough to defeat a Falcons outfit comprising a blend of full professional, academy and university players.
The two sides were locked at 19-19 deep into injury time before Falcons number 10 Gavin Beasley knocked over a penalty to secure the victory.
Durham’s players were stunned at the game’s conclusion, which brought their run of 34 unbeaten games, spanning almost two seasons in the BUCS Northern Premiership and National Championship, to an end.
Such a strong performance against professional opposition bodes well for the season-defining semi-final against Bath on Wednesday, however.
The game started with both sides trading powerful runs only to be met with staunch defence.
The deadlock was broken after 15 minutes, with Hatfield flyer David Haigh breaking down the left before offloading to flanker Jack Pattinson.
The ball was knocked on but play was brought back for a penalty to Durham, which Ward dutifully knocked over to take the score to 3-0.
Shortly after, a cagey kicking exchange led to Andrew McCulla, another England Students representative, collecting the ball in midfield, before passing to Ward who unleashed towering lock Josh Beaumont down the right wing into the Newcastle 22.
Strong carrying from the Durham pack culminated in openside flanker Duncan Finnie crossing in the right hand corner.
The missed conversion from out wide meant the score remained at 8-0.
The Falcons’ dominant forward power, a theme of the evening, was demonstrated on 26 minutes when they secured a lineout just outside the Durham 22, driving right towards the try line where the referee awarded a penalty try for collapsing the maul.
Beasley converted easily bringing the score back to 8-7.
Durham looked impressive as the first half continued, matching up well to an opposition side sprinkled with Premiership appearances.
Powerful carrying from Pattinson, prop Ollie McCollum and centre Tom Shiel resulted in a very kickable penalty for Durham on 35 minutes.
The reliable boot of Ward saw Durham take an 11-7 lead into the break.
After half time the Palatinate surge didn’t stop. Centre Danny Holmes beat his opposite man with a fine break, drew the full-back and popped off to Tom Shiel who raced in for a straightforward finish.
After an unsuccessful conversion attempt the score stood at 16-7.
Unfortunately for Durham, the Newcastle forward strength shone again.
A dangerous scrum in the Durham 22 was pushed forward 10 metres before Newcastle scrum-half Jordi Pasqualin wriggled free from would-be tacklers to score beside the posts.
With the score at 16-14, Durham began to gradually bring on the full complement of eight replacements.
The rest of the game was played almost entirely in the Durham half, with the Palatinate line constantly hammered by Newcastle attacks.
However, their outstanding defence was testament to Durham’s determination and conditioning as they would not allow the Falcons to breach their line.
One highlight saw number eight Harrison Collins, who put in an exceptional performance under difficult conditions at the base of the scrum, tackle and then turnover the ball just metres from the Durham line.
At the 65 minute mark, Newcastle opted for a scrum from a free kick deep in the Durham 22.
The Falcons’ forward power told again, with a pushover scrum allowing replacement number eight George McGuigan to dab the ball down over the Durham try line.
After the difficult conversion was missed, the score was tied at 19-19, setting up a tense finish.
Time after time Durham repelled Newcastle attacks but were almost never able to escape their own half.
However, when the Palatinates retained the ball through successive phases, allowing the likes of Danny Holmes and Sam Rupar to penetrate the Newcastle line, Durham looked extremely threatening.
As the game wound to a close another strong Newcastle scrum saw the Durham front row pop up, leaving Newcastle’s Beasley with the perfect chance to seal the win; which he took gladly.
Durham’s captain on the evening, Mike Ward, reacted to the defeat: “We were focusing on the performance rather than the win, and I think we outplayed them.
“We scored some good tries, and it was us playing the rugby out there which is certainly a credit to us. After all, from 60 minutes we had eight subs on the pitch, that’s almost half the team.”
While the loss was not the ideal lead-up to Durham’s BUCS championship semi-final clash with Bath at Moseley RFC on Wednesday 7th March, the Palatinates could take heart from a solid performance against top level opponents.
Ward looked forward to the semi-final: “A few of the boys were tired after the England Students’ match last Friday so we know where we are.
“We’ve got nine days now to be full on and focused. All we’re doing is building up to Bath now.”