Newcastle came from 12 points behind to snatch a late win in The Big One, the first rugby match between Newcastle and Northumbria's first teams in almost a year and a half. The victory was in no small part down to two storming tries from substitute Matthew Ilube to give Newcastle a 28-21 win at St James' Park.
With Newcastle trailing 9-21 midway through the second half it was Ilube who turned the game around. After a yellow card for Northumbria's Yaree Fantini it was Newcastle captain and number 9 Daniel Nutton who gained possession of the ball as play restarted. He passed to Ilube, who powered into the right hand corner for Newcastle's first try of the day.
Olly Burgess, having scored from three out of three penalties for Newcastle in the first half of the match, missed the conversion. Just minutes later he got a second chance when prop Matthew Woodward darted towards the line, and this time Burgess found the goal to level the score.
The scores may have been level but the momentum was certainly not. Rob Greenshield came on in the number 9 position while Nutton moved to 10 as Newcastle grew more animated in the face of a flagging Northumbria side.
And it was Ilube who wrapped things up for Newcastle in the closing stages of the game with an elegant try after skipping between the tired Northumbria defenders. Another skilful conversion from Burgess put Newcastle well ahead and Northumbria were unable to make any serious impression in the final minutes.
The 28-21 win for Newcastle, of a team a whole BUCS division higher, is the latest in a string of five victories over their city rivals in all competitions stretching back to November 2014. Rugby is one of the highest performing clubs for both universities and spectators of the men's first teams on Saturday faced no shortage of quality from either side.
[pullquote]Northumbria defenders were quick to respond to any threat, and several good runs from the likes of Alex Gilham were stopped just shy of the goal line[/pullquote]
The match formed the first part of an afternoon of rugby at St James' Park. The international break for domestic football freed up the city-centre stadium to host “The Big One”: the university clash and a Premiership match between the Newcastle Falcons and the Northampton Saints.
The Falcons sneaked a 25-22 win to go third in the Premiership in front of a crowd of other 30,000 – nearly three times the club's previous record. The Big One's organisers had been hoping to sell 20,000 tickets, and the massive attendance on Saturday will no doubt encourage St James' Park to host more rugby matches in the future.
[pullquote]Newcastle came from a 12-point deficit to regain control of the match and then take the lead[/pullquote]
Those fans who turned up for the start of the university clash witnessed a series of early penalties given to both sides, but it was Northumbria who looked dominant. Far from their later sloppiness on the pitch the Northumbria defenders were quick to respond to any threat, and several good runs from the likes of Alex Gilham were stopped just shy of the goal line.
It was also Northumbria who scored the first try of the afternoon when captain Lewis Berg snuck between two Newcastle defenders to touch the ball down between the Gallowgate posts. A successful conversion from Jake Rodgers gave Northumbria a 10-6 lead, and a penalty apiece took the score to 13-9 for half time.
A second try came early in the second half thanks to Northumbria prop Toby Williams. Newcastle's defenders could only watch as he sped towards the line in open space after spectacular runs from Rodgers and Nat Lunt following a line out by Newcastle's 22.
This fast paced action would prove to be Northumbria's final mark on the scoreline, however, and their early dominance soon crumbled as the match wore on. Newcastle, meanwhile, came from this low-point of a 12-point deficit to regain control of the match and then take the lead.
[pullquote]It's now five wins for Newcastle from the past five matches between the two university first teams, with the latest victory the most emphatic of them all[/pullquote]
A muted congratulation for the Newcastle players came from Northumbria's director of sport, Col Stromsoy, who was at pains to point out on Twitter that Northumbria's focus was on their first BUCS Championship Cup match on Wednesday, meaning that several of their most regular first team members were absent against Newcastle.
Despite their Cup distraction, however, Northumbria were the favourites going into the match, playing a BUCS division above Newcastle and only a point short of the status as England's best university rugby team just two weeks ago.
Their humbling at the hands of Newcastle will no doubt take some of the shine off of their recent Stan Calvert whitewash, and The Big One demonstrates how university sports can attract big crowds, in a marked difference to the poorly-attended Stan Calvert fixtures back in February.
Combining university and Premiership rugby under a joint ticket was very much an experiment but seemed to create a good atmosphere, with the stadium slowly filling up during the uni match. By the time Newcastle took the lead there was a sizeable crowd of supporters cheering them on, and considering the match took place during both universities' Easter break the attendance was impressive.
It's now five wins for Newcastle from the past five matches between the two university first teams, with the latest victory the most emphatic of them all. In years gone by the first team rugby meet-up formed the Stan Calvert finale, before moving to the start of the academic year as “Clash of the Titans” between 2013 and 2016. This year scheduling difficulties precluded that spectacle, and with the two teams in different BUCS leagues The Big One offered a now-rare opportunity to go head to head.
Newcastle narrowly missed out on promotion to the Super League, home to Northumbria and the other top university rugby teams, just ten days before The Big One, but remain in the top 15 nationwide.