Newcastle Falcons took the full five points in Saturday’s European Challenge Cup opener at Kingston Park Stadium but were made to work for it by a gallant Dragons side.
The outcome was not decided until the dying stages when the Falcons finally pulled away, their Welsh visitors offering fierce resistance in an entertaining contest.
A scrappy opening to the game saw two much-changed line-ups searching for that elusive continuity, With kicking exchanges and handling errors leading to little in the way of clear-cut scoring chances as much of the play was stuck in the middle third.
That all changed on 13 minutes when Newcastle kicked a penalty for a line-out on the opposition 22, play swung from left to right to set up the close-range ruck from which Rob Vickers plundered another his trademark pick-and-go tries.
Toby Flood converted from wide right, the visitors getting themselves off the mark on 20 minutes when fly-half Angus O’Brien hammered over a penalty from 45 metres out in front.
The Falcons got themselves into double figures quickly after when quick feet from Adam Radwan and an infringement from the visitors in the ensuing phases saw Flood chipping over the simplest of penalties.
O’Brien chipped three back with a penalty of his own from similarly straightforward range, the Falcons enjoying by far the greater of territory and possession with patient phase play and solid recycling work.
Debutants Ryan Burrows and Gary Graham were among the many willing carriers as the men in green and white looked to keep the game alive, Sam Stuart supplying a steady stream of quick ball on his first competitive start.
Try number two arrived just before the break when a kick downfield by Alex Tait caused panic in the Dragons rearguard, the Welsh side coughing up possession and finding themselves beneath their own posts when a quick transfer along the back line saw Adam Radwan diving into the left corner.
That left Newcastle 15-6 up at half-time, but it was the Dragons who began the second period the brighter.
Even when O’Brien’s 30-metre penalty thumped back off the post two minutes after the resumption they found a try from the next passage, a three-on-two down the right sending replacement Rynard Landman away for a try converted by O’Brien.
That reduced the Falcons’ lead to just two points, and it got even worse for the home side on 52 minutes when they allowed a kick to bounce in their own 22 before Ashton Hewitt grabbed it for a converted try down the right.
The response did not take long as the Falcons kicked a penalty to the left corner and drove over the resulting line-out Graham the man to dot down on an enterprising debut from the open-side.
Flood’s touchline conversion put his side two points up going into the final 25 minutes, Scott Wilson emerging from the bench for an eagerly-awaited return from injury.
But the Welsh side had no intention of rolling over, replacement Pat Howard putting them back in front on the hour mark when the winger chased down a kick to the right corner for a converted score.
Newcastle responded with the bonus-point try when a period pf patient phase play saw Gary Graham feeding skipper Mark Wilson for a run-in, Flood’s conversion giving the Falcons a two-point advantage.
The centre added a penalty with four minutes to spare as the home side extended the buffer to five, and that was how it stayed as they take their campaign to Bordeaux-Begles next Saturday.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Simon Hammersley (Chris Harris, 57), 14 Alex Tait, 13 Maxime Mermoz, 12 Toby Flood, 11 Adam Radwan, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Sam Stuart; 1 Rob Vickers, 2 Ben Sowrey, 3 Trevor Davison (Scott Wilson, 56), 4 Will Witty, 5 Sean Robinson, 6 Mark Wilson (captain), 7 Gary Graham, 8 Ryan Burrows.
Falcons scorers - Tries: Rob Vickers, Adam Radwan, Gary Graham, Mark Wilson. Conversions: Toby Flood 3. Penalties: Toby Flood 2.
Dragons: 15 Will Talbot-Davies, 14 Ashton Hewitt (Pat Howard, 57), 13 Jared Rosser, 12 Adam Warren, 11 George Gasson, 10 Angus O’Brien, 9 Sarel Pretorius; 1 Luke Garrett (Thomas Davies, 52), 2 Liam Belcher (Gerard Ellis, 52), 3 Lloyd Fairbrother (Brok Harris, 52), 4 Joe Davies (James Thomas, 76), 5 Matthew Screech (Rynard Landman, 27), 6 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Ollie Griffiths (captain), 8 James Benjamin.
Dragons scorers - Tries: Rynard Landman, Ashton Hewitt, Pat Howard. Conversions: Angus O’Brien 3. Penalties: Angus O’Brien 2.
Referee: Pierre Brousset (France). Attendance: 4,052.