Newcastle Falcons suffered a second defeat of the Gallagher Premiership season on Sunday when they fell to London Irish at Brentford Community Stadium.
Trailing 14-8 at the break and failing to rein in their hosts during the second 40, they mounted a late comeback but had a losing bonus point snatched from their grasp by a 78th minute try from replacement hooker Motu Matu’u.
A cagey opening to the game saw both sides turning predominantly to the air, Louis Schreuder and opposite number Nick Phipps putting up a host of box kicks with the game being played almost exclusively in the middle third of the field.
Aggressive line speed from the Falcons forced a succession of handling errors from the Exiles, Newcastle eventually forcing their way into the home 22 but coming away empty-handed when a Joel Hodgson penalty was pulled wide of the uprights.
London Irish finally registered the first points of the afternoon on 20 minutes when a penalty was kicked to the left corner for hooker Agustin Creevy to score from a driving maul, Paddy Jackson converting from out wide.
The Falcons were energetic in striving to get a foot-hold in the game, keeping the ball in hand more around halfway and making some half-breaks through the running of Philip van der Walt, Trevor Davison and Gary Graham among others, but the crucial pass just wouldn’t stick in a frustrating opening half.
Irish were having no such worries, making the most of their occasional red-zone incursions and chalking up a second try on the half-hour when winger James Stokes dived in at the right corner from a two-on-one – Jackson having worked the ball wide.
Jackson added the touchline conversion for a 14-point buffer, but the Falcons hit back with a well-worked try, Ben Stevenson scoring in the left corner from a long, fizzing pass from Joel Hodgson.
The opportunity had been created by a line-out on the Irish 22, over-the-back ball freeing Matias Orlando and setting in motion a period of pick-and-go play which sucked in defensive numbers around the posts and created the space for Hodgson to feed Stevenson.
The Falcons used the remaining two minutes of the half to good effect, too, earning prime field position and teeing up Hodgson for a 25-metre penalty from just left of centre, which left the half-time score at London Irish 14 Newcastle 8.
The home side grabbed the opening points in a cagey beginning to the second half when Jackson kicked a penalty from the right-hand side five minutes after the resumption, Newcastle having Tom Penny sent to the sin bin for a late shot on full-back Tom Parton.
The extra man in the back line was exploited by Irish on 53 minutes when a cross-field kick from Jackson and an inside pass freed Curtis Rona for a converted try, giving the visitors a mountain to climb going int the closing quarter.
Just as the game looked to be drifting away from the Falcons they produced a rearguard effort, earning sustained field position and making it count when Sam Stuart darted over from the base of a close-range ruck, Hodgson converting.
The momentum continued when Gary Graham scored from a Philip van der Walt offload, narrowing the gap to two points with just four minutes remaining, but when Motu Matu’u scored a converted try from a driving maul on 77 minutes the result was secured.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Tom Penny (Brett Connon, 73), 14 Adam Radwan, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Toby Flood (co-captain, George Wacokecoke, 56), 11 Ben Stevenson, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Louis Schreuder (Sam Stuart, 57); 1 Trevor Davison (Kyle Cooper, 57), 2 George McGuigan (Jamie Blamire, 73), 3 Logovi’i Mulipola (Mark Tampin, 57), 4 Greg Peterson (Will Montgomery, 64), 5 Marco Fuser (John Hardie, 64), 6 Sean Robinson (co-captain), 7 Philip van der Walt, 8 Gary Graham.
Scorers - Tries: Ben Stevenson, Sam Stuart, Gary Graham. Conversions: Joel Hodgson 2. Penalties: Joel Hodgson.
London Irish: 15 Tom Parton, 14 James Stokes, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Billy Meakes (Terrence Hepetema, 40), 11 Ben Loader, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Nick Phipps (Ben Meehan, 61); 1 Will Goodrick-Clarke (Allan Dell, 60), 2 Agustin Creevy (Motu Matu’u, 60), 3 Sekope Kepu (Lovejoy Chawatama, 37), 4 Steve Mafi (Adam Coleman, 46), 5 Rob Simmons, 6 Matt Rogerson (captain, Ben Donnell, 73), 7 Seàn O’Brien, 8 Albert Tuisue.
Scorers - Tries: Agustin Creevy, James Stokes, Curtis Rona, Motu Matu’u. Conversions: Paddy Jackson 4. Penalties: Paddy Jackson.
Referee: Matthew Carley.
Parton, Stokes, Rona, Meakes, Loader, Jackson, Phipps, Goodrick-Clarke, Creevy, Kepu, Mafi, Simmons, Rogerson, O'Brien, Tuisue
Replacements Matu'u, Dell, Chawatama, Coleman, Donnell, Cowan, Meehan, Hepetema
Penny, Radwan, Orlando, Flood, Stevenson, Hodgson, Schreuder, Davison, McGuigan, Mulipola, Peterson, Fuser, Robinson, Van Der Walt, Graham
Replacements Blamire, Cooper, Tampin, Montgomery, Hardie, Stuart, Connon, Wacokecoke
referee: Matthew Carley
assistant: Christophe Ridley
assistant: Roy Maybank
TMO: Karl Dickson