A hat-trick from birthday boy Zach Kibirige was not enough to split the two teams as Newcastle Falcons and Exeter Chiefs opened the Premiership Rugby Cup with a drawn encounter at Kingston Park Stadium on Sunday.
Both teams flew out of the blocks demonstrating a clear intention to play, Newcastle almost drawing first blood seven minutes in when Kibirige broke from 22 to 22.
His side’s attempts to score from the resulting ruck saw the ball turned over and Exeter responding with an 80-metre attack of their own in a frantic end-to-end play, Adam Radwan scurrying back to help alleviate the pressure as the visitors knocked on trying to collect a hack ahead.
Clean line-out ball helped hand the Falcons a number of decent attacking opportunities as they spend much of the opening quarter in Chiefs’ territory, but that possession did not really extend into the 22 as the Devonians tested the offside laws to their limits.
When the first score finally arrived on 21 minutes it was Exeter who grabbed it, full-back Max Bodilly scoring in the left corner as the ball was worked wide from a midfield ruck, fly-half Harvey Skinner converting well from near the touchline.
The Falcons drew level on 27 minutes with a try created and finished by their wingers, Adam Radwan breaking down the right from half-way to the 22, finding Sam Stuart on his inside who in turn freed Kibirige to race home.
Brett Connon converted from in front, and within nine minutes Kibirige had a second try, the pace man latching onto a deft grubber from Stuart from a close-range ruck to ground the unconverted score and put his side in front for the first time.
That gave Newcastle a 12-7 interval lead, the home side having been a whisker away from increasing that when Connon thumped the crossbar with a long-range penalty in the final play of the half.
The Falcons continued to turn the screw after the break when Tom Arscott drilled a grubber 40 metres into the left corner, and they almost had a third try on 45 minutes when Sam Stuart knocked on under pressure in the act of scoring.
Connon at least kept the scoreboard moving when he sent over a simple penalty from in front, Skinner replying with a similarly straightforward effort of his own on 55 minutes to reduce the home side’s advantage back down to five.
Newcastle surged further ahead just before the hour mark when a Chiefs downfield clearance delivered a peach of a counter-attack try, Arscott grubbering into space for Kibirige to collect, the birthday boy chipping the last man and regathering his own kick to score in front of a jubilant South Stand.
Connon’s conversion drew the lead out to 12, James Short’s winding run down the left cutting that down by five as the Chiefs responded with an unconverted try on 64 minutes.
Newcastle’s advantage evaporated completely with 10 minutes to go when a 70-metre interception try from Bodilly and a touchline conversion from Skinner drew the visitors level, and despite the home side’s best efforts in a late charge, it finished with neither side taking the spoils.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Tom Arscott, 14 Zach Kibirige, 13 Ben Stevenson, 12 Pedro Bettencourt, 11 Adam Radwan, 10 Brett Connon, 9 Sam Stuart; 1 Trevor Davison (Sam Lockwood, 45), 2 Santiago Socino (Jamie Blamire, 70), 3 Logovi’i Mulipola (Jack Payne, 70), 4 Glen Young, 5 Andrew Davidson (Tevita Cavubati, 70), 6 Ryan Burrows (captain), 7 Tom Marshall (Connor Collett, 72), 8 Callum Chick.
Falcons scorers – Tries: Zach Kibirige 3. Conversions: Brett Connon 2. Penalties: Brett Connon.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Max Bodilly, 14 Tom O’Flaherty, 13 Tom Hendrickson, 12 Sam Hill, 11 Olly Woodburn (James Short, 50), 10 Harvey Skinner, 9 Sam Maunder (Joe Snow, 64); 1 Moray Low (Billy Keast, 50), 2 Elvis Taione (Jack Innard, 50), 3 Greg Holmes (Marcus Street, 40) (captain), 4 Toby Salmon (James Freeman, 45), 5 Wilhelm Van Der Sluys, 6 Josh Caulfield, 7 Sean Lonsdale, 8 Tom Lawday (Onehunga Kaufusi, 64).
Exeter scorers – Tries: Max Bodilly 2, James Short. Conversions: Harvey Skinner 2. Penalties: Harvey Skinner.
Referee: Andrew Jackson. Attendance: 6,502.