Newcastle Falcons agonisingly missed out on a share of the points as Gallagher Premiership champions Saracens ground out a victory at Kingston Park Stadium in Sunday’s season opener.
Newcastle enjoyed the ideal start on a warm, dry afternoon, Toby Flood slotting a penalty from 30 metres out and left of centre after a Vereniki Goneva line-break forced Saracens to infringe at the subsequent ruck.
Flood repeated the trick from a similar angle but slightly closer in on eight minutes when a lineout steal saw Josh Matavesi kicking to the left corner, Adam Radwan helping force a defender over his own try-line for a five-metre scrum which eventually delivered the kickable penalty opportunity.
Saracens got themselves off the mark when a scrum in a central position enabled Owen Farrell to slot over a penalty from 25 metres, and the England fly-half was slotting a touchline conversion from the right-hand side on 16 minutes when hooker Jamie George dotted down in the corner.
Newcastle kept their chins up and attacked downfield through Flood, whose super short ball found Callum Chick on a straightening angle, Flood collecting the offload and almost freeing Goneva down the right with an ambitious back-hand pass.
They had to wait until the 33rd minute to turn their pressure into points when a high tackle on the 22 allowed Flood another fairly straightforward penalty, but the champions gave themselves a 17-9 interval lead with the very last play of the half when a kick-return saw Alex Lewington collecting a two-on-one for a simple converted try.
Newcastle began the second half having to absorb a wave of attacking pressure from Saracens, Callum Chick showing supreme ruck skills near his own line to win a relieving jackal penalty.
Hooker George McGuigan put in a very lively shift on his second ‘debut’ for the Falcons after rejoining from Leicester Tigers over the summer, but it was double centurion Mark Wilson who had the crowd on their feet on 56 minutes when he burst through the middle of a ruck on the Sarries’ 22, Niki Goneva-style, to score an unconverted try which left his team just three points down.
That margin lasted only a matter of minutes as a clinical Saracens side restored their buffer, Lewington collecting a wide, looping pass from Farrell to dot down an unconverted try in the right corner on the hour mark.
The champions were reduced to 14 men when replacement Nick Tomkins was sin-binned for a leading forearm to the face of Toby Flood, and that became 13 when Alex Goode joined him in the sin for cynically killing a ruck on his side’s 22 from a Simon Hammersley line-break.
Newcastle gambled and kicked the penalty to the corner, the bet paying off as Wilson rumbled over from a maul to score his second try. Flood’s touchline conversion reduced the arrears to just a single point with eight minutes to go.
But a ruthless Saracens side showed their clinical streak almost right from the restart, Tompkins coming back from the sin bin to score down the left after a piercing run from hooker Jamie George, Farrell’s conversion and subsequent penalty taking Newcastle out of losing bonus point range.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Vereniki Goneva, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Josh Matavesi, 11 Adam Radwan (Alex Tait, 61), 10 Toby Flood (Joel Hodgson, 71), 9 Sonatane Takulua; 1 Sami Mavinga, 2 George McGuigan (Santi Sicono, 71), 3 Logovi'i Mulipola (Jack Payne, 77), 4 Calum Green, 5 Will Witty (Tevita Cavubati, 62), 6 Mark Wilson, 7 Will Welch (captain), 8 Callum Chick.
Falcons scorers - Tries: Mark Wilson 2. Conversions: Toby Flood. Penalties: Toby Flood 3.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 David Strettle (Nick Tompkins, 42), 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Sean Maitland (Alex Lewington, 24), 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth; 1 Mako Vunipola (Richard Barrington, 51), 2 Jamie George (Christopher Tolofua, 77), 3 Vincent Koch (Juan Figallo, 51, Vincent Koch, 66), 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Will Skelton (Nick Isiekwe, 51), 6 Mike Rhodes, 7 Ben Earl, 8 Jackson Wray.
Saracens scorers - Tries: Jamie George, Alex Lewington 2, Nick Tompkins. Conversions: Owen Farrell 3. Penalties: Owen Farrell 2.
Referee: Ian Tempest. Attendance: 7,015.