Newcastle beat Bedford to seal promotion to Premiership
Newcastle (17) 31
- Shortland, A Tait
- Gopperth 7
Bedford (18) 24
- Sharp 7
- Drop Goals:
Newcastle Falcons sealed their Premiership return at the first attempt with victory over Bedford Blues.
It meant a 49-33 aggregate victory for Newcastle, who led 18-9 from the first leg of the Championship play-off.
Bedford put up a fight through the kicking of Jake Sharp and led at half-time at Kingston Park, but found the aggregate lead too much to overhaul.
Jimmy Gopperth kicked 21 points for the home side and played his part in tries for Ryan Shortland and Alex Tait.
Victory ensured Falcons avoided the fate of Bristol, who twice won the regular season Championship but were denied during the play-off series.
It also avoids an embarrassing repeat of last season for the Rugby Football Union and Premier Rugby, where winners London Welsh - initially ineligible with regard to their stadium provision - were eventually admitted after a lengthy appeal.
Incidentally, the Falcons will take the Exiles' place in the Premiership after Welsh finished bottom of the table.
For director of rugby Dean Richards, success is the culmination of a season of dominance in the Championship, and returns the former Leicester and Harlequins boss to the top tier for the first time since a lengthy suspension for his role in a fake blood injury scandal.
Gopperth's final outing in Falcons colours before departing for Leinster gave him ample opportunity to bid farewell to Kingston Park in trademark fashion in a match dominated by penalties.
However the Kiwi was matched for accuracy by opposite number Sharp, who was also busy from the tee in a points-packed second leg.
Falcons struck first on five minutes, Gopperth rattling his kick through the posts after a driving maul created the field position and Bedford were penalised 22 metres out for offside.
Sharp then struck three times without reply as Bedford eased ahead, but another Gopperth effort was followed by a terrific try by Shortland that owed much to smart handling throughout the Falcons side.
That score seemed to rouse the Falcons crowd, but they were again quietened when a Sharp drop goal sailed through the posts to restore a narrow lead, and the two fly-halves traded penalties up to half-time to see Blues 18-17 up at the break.
Bedford continued their expansive game into the second half, working the Falcons defensive line and forcing another penalty which Sharp again slotted, but the Falcons found a chink in Bedford's backline for a second try.
Suka Hufanga made the ground with a driving run, and the ball was worked left to Tait, who did well to squeeze in under pressure, but Gopperth's kick found the woodwork to deny the hosts an extra two points.
Not that the lead seemed to calm the nerves of Richards's side, as a hopeful hack through from Gregor Gillanders forced Tait to concede a five-metre scrum but their dominance at the scrum ensured they snuffed out the Bedford threat.
Gopperth again struck with a dipping effort from close to half-way to go four points up, but another Sharp kick after considerable pressure forced the error again cut the gap.
The majority of the 7,651 crowd were poised on the edge of their seats when, with less than 15 minutes to go, a huge Falcons pack drove Bedford back and earned a penalty, which was effortlessly dispatched by the Falcons 10.
Only scramble defence kept out a third Falcons try in the dying seconds, and once the whistle went, cheers rang out around the ground as top-flight rugby union returned to the North East after a season away.
Newcastle: Tait; Cato, Hufanga, Powell, Shortland; Gopperth, Fury; Shiells, Vickers, Tomaszczyk; Del Fava, MacLeod, Wilson, Welch, Hogg.
Replacements: Thompson, Golding, Wilson, Hudson, Tu'ifua, Lawson, Luveniyali.
Bedford: Ransom; Short, Dodge, Atkinson, Bassett; Sharp, Veenendaal; Reeves, Spurling, Seal; Howard, Tupai, Gillanders, Fox, Fenton-Wells.
Replacements: Cochrane, Boulton, Gulliver, Barrell, Baldwin, Vass, Pritchard.