Newcastle Falcons’ European Challenge Cup hopes suffered a major blow when a late try from centre Fabrice Estebanez handed the French side a dramatic victory at a bitterly cold Stade des Alpes on Friday.
It took a heroic effort from the grounds staff of the home side to get the game on in the first place following a heavy pre-match deluge of snow, and it was Grenoble who enjoyed the early dominance when a line-out in the right corner almost delivered a try.
A well-organised Newcastle defensive unit repelled the drive just millimetres from the try-line, standing firm under a barrage of close-range carries and ultimately forcing a dropped ball as Grenoble panicked under pressure.
Turnover ball from an eager Falcons pack saw skipper Fred Burdon freeing Zach Kibirige for a burst down the left, play pulled back for a head injury as the winger sped down the touchline.
But the Falcons did not have long to wait before they managed to cross the whitewash, fit-again centre Chris Harris marking his comeback from an ankle injury by scoring down the left after a lovely one-two with Will Witty as his team kept the ball alive in contact.
Only a last-ditch tap tackle prevented Kibirige from adding a second when the winger beat his man on the outside, South African hooker Kyle Cooper making an earlier-than-expected debut after replacing Ben Sowrey inside the opening 10 minutes.
An attritional half slowed down as both packs tried to exert dominance, neither truly managing it on a night where the difficult underfoot conditions made cohesive running play difficult.
But Grenoble did manage to find and exploit an opening on 32 minutes when captain David Mélé dotted down a converted try to draw level, his side attacking from a close-range scrum.
Willis’ second successful strike at goal put the Falcons three points ahead almost straight from the restart, his side winning repeated turnovers thanks to some keen work at ruck time as they maintained a 10-7 half-time lead.
Gilles Bosch was proving similarly trustworthy with the boot, drawing his team level once more with a simple penalty three minutes into the second period, but Calum Green had other ideas when the big lock was driven over for Newcastle’s second try after kicking a penalty to the corner.
Willis once again added the extras, taking his side’s lead into double figures when scrum pressure handed the fly-half a penalty from 25 metres out in front.
But two tries in the space of three minutes changed the balance of the game, Grenoble awarded a penalty try when Calum Green was sin-binned for pulling down a maul in the left corner, following it up with another driving maul score down the right as replacement Etienne Fourcade barrelled over.
That left the hosts up by four going into the final 13 minutes, Newcastle refusing to lie down and resuming their lead when Scott Wilson scored from the base of a ruck near the home posts following Kyle Cooper’s steady progress at the back of a Falcons maul.
Willis’ conversion extended the visitors’ advantage to three, but the killer moment arrived two minutes from time when centre Fabrice Estebanez scored in the left corner on a blind-side burst, Bosch converting in the final scoring act of an end-to-end encounter.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Brett Connon, 14 Dan Marshall, 13 Chris Harris (Dominic Waldouck, 50), 12 Fred Burdon (captain), 11 Zach Kibirige (Tom Catterick, 72), 10 Craig Willis, 9 Sam Egerton (Michael Young, 61); 1 Ben Harris, 2 Ben Sowrey (Kyle Cooper, 8), 3 David Wilson (Scott Wilson, 50), 4 Will Witty (Calum Green, 27), 5 Mouritz Botha, 6 Sean Robinson, 7 Harrison Orr, 8 Daniel Temm.
Sin bin: Calum Green (61).
Falcons scorers - Tries: Chris Harris, Calum Green, Scott Wilson. Conversions: Craig Willis 3. Penalties: Craig Willis 2.
FC Grenoble: 15 Armand Batlle (Sisa Waqa, 23), 14 Xavier Mignot, 13 Fabrice Estebanez, 12 Clément Gelin, 11 Lucas Dupont (captain), 10 Gilles Bosch, 9 David Mélé; 1 Alexandre Dardet (Dylan Jacquot, 54), 2 Arnaud Héguy (Etienne Fourcade, 54), 3 Dayna Edwards (Rossouw de Klerk, 54), 4 Mickaël Capelli, 5 Ben Hand (Thomas Jolmes, 8), 6 Mathias Marie, 7 Kevin Kornath (Peter Kimlin, 54), 8 Dylan Hayes.
Grenoble scorers - Tries: David Mélé, Penalty try, Etienne Fourcade, Fabrice Estebanez. Conversions: Gilles Bosch 3. Penalties: Gilles Bosch.
Referee: Vlad Iordescu (Romania).