Newcastle Falcons fell agonisingly short of Premiership Rugby Cup victory on Friday night, falling to a late try at Sale Sharks.
Rouban Birch’s try eight minutes from time sealed a typically gritty contest, Newcastle having a five-metre scrum in the last minute of the game but failing to find a winner.
Once the smoke from the pre-match fireworks had finally subsided it was Sale who had the first scoring chance of the game, kicking a penalty to the left corner but failing to convert the line-out as Newcastle’s maul defence held firm.
The Sharks were held up over the try-line as another close-range line-out passed by without return, but the deadlock was broken on 11 minutes when home fly-half Robert du Preez slotted a penalty from in front of the posts as Newcastle failed to roll away at ruck time.
The Falcons kept themselves in the game and nudged ahead on 21 minutes, centre Will Haydon-Wood scoring between the posts when Sale failed to deal with a crafty kick ahead from scrum-half Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti.
Brett Connon added the simple conversion to put the visitors up by four, but the Sharks regained the lead on 28 minutes when centre Jack Metcalf reacted quickest to a loose ball on the 22, scooping it up to score in the right corner.
Robert du Preez drilled over a low touchline conversion, the Falcons enjoying their fair share of field position with skipper Gary Graham leading from the front.
Nonetheless, they trailed 15-7 at half time thanks to a try from Sale left wing Arron Reed, who stripped the ball in a tackle and raced 35 metres to the corner.
Newcastle started the second half on the front foot and had the first points five minutes in, Connon slotting a penalty from 25 metres out in front after Sale’s tacklers had failed to roll away from a Haydon-Wood run.
Du Preez replied with a penalty from 35 metres out in front, but Newcastle went into the last quarter trailing by just three points after Nath Earle scored in the right corner.
It came from a tapped penalty five metres out, the visitors sucking in the defensive numbers with hard carrying around the posts before working a wraparound play and floating a wide ball out for the grateful winger to canter over.
Newcastle took the lead with 12 minutes to go when a dominant scrum handed them a penalty which Haydon-Wood kicked brilliantly to the left corner, his side capitalising on the field position as replacement hooker George McGuigan scored from the driving maul.
The missed conversion left them just two ahead going into the closing stages, and Sale reeled them in when lock Rouban Birch went in for the decisive converted try in the right corner.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Nathan Earle (Zach Kerr, 74), 13 Max Wright, 12 Will Haydon-Wood, 11 George Wacokecoke, 10 Brett Connon (Luther Burrell, 51), 9 Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti (James Blackett, 75); 1 Adam Brocklebank (Kyle Cooper, 51), 2 Robbie Smith (George McGuigan, 51), 3 Logovi’i Mulipola (Mark Tampin, 51), 4 Greg Peterson (Sean Robinson, 65), 5 Rob Farrar, 6 Josh Basham (Tom Marshall, 68), 7 Connor Collett, 8 Gary Graham.
Scorers – Tries: Will Haydon-Wood, Nathan Earle, George McGuigan. Conversions: Brett Connon. Penalties: Brett Connon.
Sale Sharks: 15 Elliot Gourlay, 14 Tom Roebuck, 13 Jack Metcalf (Joe Bedlow, 74), 12 Luke James, 11 Arron Reed, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Gus Warr; 1 Simon McIntyre (Ben Carlile, 31), 2 Curtis Langdon, 3 Joe Jones (Nick Schonert, 46), 4 Matt Postlethwaite, 5 Reuban Birch (Ewan Murphy, 74), 6 Cameron Neild, 7 Sam Dugdale, 8. Daniel du Preez (captain, Ben Curry, 40).
Scorers – Tries: Jack Metcalf, Rouban Birch, Arron Reed. Conversions: Robert du Preez 2. Penalties: Robert du Preez 2.
Referee: Nick Wood.