Newcastle Falcons missed out on the chance of leapfrogging London Irish in the Aviva Premiership table despite a strong second-half fightback and a frantic finish at the Madejski Stadium.
The visitors failed to climb into 10th place as they enter the last four games of the league season but put in a heroic effort as Adam Powell and Chris Harris both crossed for late tries.
They at least had the consolation of a losing bonus point, attention now turning to Saturday's European Challenge Cup quarter-final at Exeter.
Despite having been comfortable winners at the same venue in last month's LV= Cup encounter the Falcons got off to the worst possible start, finding themselves a try down inside two minutes.
Tongan prop Halani Aulika was the man to inflict the blow as he ran through the middle of a ruck without a finger being laid on him, former England fly-half Shane Geraghty adding the conversion.
Newcastle stayed true to their mantra of running rugby, working the wide channels as Sinoti Sinoti probed down the left, the Samoan showing his characteristic sharp footwork.
An overlap on the right went begging when the final pass failed to find its man, the hosts having no such problems in taking their chances.
That much was shown on 12 minutes when a kickable penalty was dabbed into touch, the resulting rolling maul seeing them play an advantage to good effect.
Scrum half Scott Steele was the man to make it count, breaking infield from the base and dotting down for a second converted try.
Newcastle's patient attacking play finally got the rewards it deserved on 15 minutes when sustained pressure in the Exiles' 22 handed Tom Catterick a simple penalty from in front.
They could and should have had a try on the quarter mark when Catterick's show-and-go set up quick ball from a close-range ruck, only for Geraghty to cynically step offside and prevent the Falcons finishing the move.
The stand-off earned a yellow card for his intervention but the visitors failed to score from the resulting penalty, a string of quick taps from Ruki Tipuna maintaining their attacking momentum.
Catterick's territorial kicking was getting them into the right areas but the hime side's ability to disrupt Newcastle's mauling game meant it went unrewarded on the scoreboard, at least until the 34th minute when he chipped over a second penalty.
That came as a result of yet more Irish infringing at a close-range ruck, David Paice earning 10 minutes in the sin-bin for a flagrant offside.
It did not dent his team's ruthless attack, however, former Falcon Andrew Fenby diving in for their third try with the final play of the half when quick hands down the blind-side created a try in the right corner.
Geraghty's conversion miss left the half-time margin at 19-6 in the Exiles' favour, Newcastle starting the second half brightly and having a try chalked off when the video referee deemed Sinoti to have collected a forward pass before diving in at the left corner.
Their patient attacking play saw plenty of ball-in-hand, Juan Pablo Socino arriving for the final half hour in place of busy countryman Gonzalo Tiesi.
His abrasive brand of gain-line running added further impetus, Catterick's third penalty cutting the gap to 10 points when he slotted from in front.
The addition of Harris further strengthened Newcastle's physical threat, his double-team tackle with Richard Mayhew winning a turnover penalty from a ball-and-all hit underneath a Tipuna high bomb.
Sinoti's infield incursions delivered further yards, exploited brilliantly by Harris when the replacement powered through a gap in the right corner to reach out and score at full stretch.
That reduced the arrears to five going into the final 10 minutes, but there was still time for plenty of late drama.
Firstly the double sin-binning of Josh Furno and Jebb Sinclair after a scrap on the Falcons' 22, Chris Noakes notching the resulting penalty for the hosts.
But with less than a minute on the clock Newcastle went up the other end and scored, Harris' line-break feeding Powell for a try in the right corner.
With the seconds running down Catterick plonked the ball down and nailed the touchline conversion from a two-step run-up, his side handed one last play to win the game.
Agonisingly it just would not come, referee Greg Garner pulling play back for a forward pass as the Exiles hung on for a precious home victory.
Newcastle Falcons A Tait, N Cato (C Harris, 58), G Tiesi (JP Socino, 51), A Powell, S Sinoti, T Catterick, R Tipuna (A Davies, 67); R Vickers (A Rogers, 58), S Lawson, K Brookes (JP Orlandi, 51), K Thompson (A Saull, 69), D Barrow (J Furno, 58), R Mayhew, W Welch (captain), M Wilson. Sin bin: J Furno (74)
Falcons scorers – Tries: C Harris, A Powell. Penalties: T Catterick 3. Conversions: T Catterick
London Irish A Fenby, A Lewington (T Ojo, 61), E Griffin, E Sheridan, T Fowlie, S Geraghty (C Noakes, 69), S Steele (D Allinson, 67); T Court (M Parr, 69), D Paice (J Stevens, 79), H Aulika (L Halavatau, 61), G Skivington (captain), N Rouse, C Gilsenan (J Sinclair, 63), B Cowan, T Guest. Sin bin: S Geraghty (21), D Paice (33), J Sinclair (74).
Irish scorers – Tries: H Aulika, S Steele, A Fenby. Conversions: S Geraghty 2. Penalties: C Noakes.
Referee: G Garner. Attendance: 15,731.
Fenby, Lewington, Griffin, Sheridan, Fowlie, Geraghty, Steele, Court, Paice, 'Aulika, Skivington, Rouse, Gilsenan, Cowan, Guest
Replacements Stevens, Parr, Halavatau, Sinclair, Narraway, Allinson, Noakes, Ojo
Tait, Cato, Tiesi, Powell, Sinoti, Catterick, Tipuna, Vickers, Lawson, Brookes, Thompson, Barrow, Mayhew, Welch, Wilson
Replacements Hawkins, Rogers, Orlandi, Furno, Saull, Davies, Socino, Harris
referee: Greg Garner