A dramatic Premiership Rugby Cup tie was decided with two tries in the last five minutes as Newcastle Falcons kept alive their hopes of a semi-final place.
Robbie Smith’s winner from a maul in the right corner proved the key in a thrilling match on Friday at Kingston Park Stadium - Alex Tait adding the cherry with the very last play.
Newcastle led 19-14 at the midway stage and tested the Tigers’ defence early on with carries from Nathan Earle and Freddie Lockwood, fed by a steady supply of line-out ball from George Merrick.
But it was Leicester who inflicted the first scoring blow of the evening, kicking a penalty to the left corner and scoring when hooker Charlie Vanes was driven over from the maul.
Dan Lancaster added the conversion – Newcastle looking to hit hard midfield runners but repeatedly knocking the ball on in contact.
The passes finally started to stick after the quarter mark, and the hosts were rewarded for their good work when Nathan Earle grounded an unconverted try in the left corner from simple hands along the line following Brett Connon’s incisive run.
The home side surged into the lead on 28 minutes when Zach Kerr scored his first Falcons try in the right corner, a length-of-the-field attack started by Louis Schreuder’s show-and-go inside his own 22, with Freddie Lockwood eating off 60 metres in a rampaging run down the centre of the field before the ball was worked wide for Kerr to dive in.
Connon added the touchline conversion for a five-point advantage, and he did so again just six minutes later when his own dummy-and-break enabled Max Wright to score from a straightforward two-on-one.
But it was Leicester who had the final say of the opening half – a string of close-range penalties eventually being rewarded when Fijian full-back Kini Murimurivalu scored a converted try in the left corner.
That left the Falcons 19-14 up at the interval, a margin they increased seven minutes into the second half when George Wacokecoke dotted down in the left corner after Connon’s thunderous touch-finder handed them a line-out in prime position.
Leicester by this stage were down to 14 men with Kobus van Wyk in the sin bin for a head-shot on Nathan Earle – the home faithful having felt there was a strong argument for a red card.
The Falcons were themselves reduced to 14 men when Adam Brocklebank was shown yellow for side entry at a maul, and from the resulting penalty the visitors had a try chalked off by the TMO when they obstructed at the line-out.
Tigers reduced the Falcons’ lead to just three points on 65 minutes when Hosea Saumaki powered 30 metres down the left wing to score, with former-Newcastle man Juan Pablo Socino slotting the simple conversion.
Leicester nudged themselves in front nine minutes from time when they kicked a penalty to the right corner and scored from the resulting maul – Socino again adding the conversion – but that lead lasted less then two minutes as Newcastle produced a carbon-copy from Robbie Smith at the back of a catch-and-drive.
A frantic finale saw Newcastle scoring again through Tait with the very last play, recording their first home win of the calendar year and keeping alive their hopes of a Premiership Cup semi-final place.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Zach Kerr (Joel Hodgson, 65), 13 Max Wright, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Nathan Earle (George Wacokecoke, 45), 10 Brett Connon, 9 Louis Schreuder; 1 Adam Brocklebank, 2 Charlie Maddison (Robbie Smith, 59), 3 Richard Palframan (Mark Tampin, 59), 4 George Merrick (Matthew Dalton, 59), 5 Rob Farrar, 6 Callum Chick (captain), 7 Freddie Lockwood, 8 Tom Marshall (Jamie Blamire, 72).
Scorers – Tries: Nathan Earle, Zach Kerr, Max Wright, George Wacokecoke, Robbie Smith, Alex Tait. Conversions: Brett Connon 3.
Leicester Tigers: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Jaco Taute (captain, Jacob Cusick, 9), 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Dan Lancaster (Morgan Meredith, 64), 9 Jonny Law (Sam Edwards, 45); 1 Francois van Wyk (Dan Richardson, 55), 2 Archie Vanes, 3 Will Hurd (Nephi Leatigaga, 55), 4 Josh Poullet, 5 David Douglas Bridge, 6 Tomiwa Agbongbon, 7 Nathan Tweedy, 8 Sean Jansen (Simon Koroiyadi, 63).
Scorers – Tries: Archie Vanes, Sean Jansen, Hosea Saumaki, A Forward. Conversions: Dan Lancaster 2, Juan Pablo Socino 2.
Referee: Sara Cox. Attendance: 4,421.