Newcastle Falcons had to make do with a pair of losing bonus points at Sale Sharks on Friday night as Vereniki Goneva ran in a hat-trick of tries.
Will Addison’s late penalty clinched a see-saw Aviva Premiership encounter in which both teams gave it absolutely everything.
Sale had come into the game with a host of last-minute changes from the team announced the previous day – Sam James switching from centre to fly-half as the home side rejigged their back line.
Within the opening minute they found themselves seven points down, the Falcons awarded a penalty straight from the kick-off. Joel Hodgson’s 40-metre effort thumped off the crossbar, but Juan Pablo Socino was first to the rebound and powered over for an opportunist try.
Hodgson converted, Sale reducing the deficit to just one when Addison struck over a pair of penalties in quick succession.
The Sharks’ attempt to go the aerial route was given short shrift when Alex Tait rose high into the night sky to claim a cross-field bomb, Opeti Fonua used as a midfield decoy as Goneva attacked down the left.
Fonua and fellow Tongan Sonatane Takulua were to the fore when a back-row move from a midfield scrum saw the latter beating his first man, Sale responding with a foray down the right as both sides tried to play positive rugby.
Newcastle’s second try arrived on 27 minutes when a lineout just inside their own half delivered a penalty which was kicked to touch. From the resulting line-out 30 metres out Vereniki Goneva cut a sensational line at first receiver, sprinting home on the diagonal for a well-taken score.
The Fijian was swiftly sent to the sin bin for kicking the ball out of a Sale player’s hands, and the Sharks took full advantage of the extra man.
Denied a try by the video referee when they knocked on in the act of scoring from a close-range ruck, there was no deliberation required when a five-metre scrum saw the ball spun wide to Denny Solomona for a walk-in at the right corner.
Addison’s conversion but the hosts into a one-point lead, and they added a further seven with the final play of the half when Byron McGuigan supported Solomona’s blind-side break to dot down in the right corner.
Mike Delany replaced the injured Alex Tait as Newcastle emerged for the second half – restored to their full quota thanks to Goneva’s sin-binning running its course.
But it was still Sale who were applying the bulk of the territorial pressure, only some superb counter-rucking preventing them scoring a third try as they kicked a penalty to the left corner.
It proved to be merely a temporary reprieve as lock Bryn Evans dummied and went for their third try, the Kiwi dotting down in the left corner as Newcastle brought on Nili Latu and Scott Wilson for the remaining half-hour.
Just when Newcastle needed a break they got one, ace predator Goneva awarded a try by the video referee when his trademark interception set in motion a 60-metre foot race to the left corner and a brilliantly-executed dive inside the corner post.
That reduced the arrears to six points, and it was groundhog day two minutes later when Goneva poached another interception for a near-identical try down the left, bringing with it a four-try bonus point.
Takulua took over the kicking duties and slotted the conversion which put the Falcons a point ahead, teeing up a nail-biting finale.
Addison’s third penalty saw the lead change hands once more with just four minutes remaining, and that was how it stayed as the Falcons had to make do with a pair of losing bonus points.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait (Mike Delany, 40), 14 Belisario Agulla, 13 Chris Harris (Dominic Waldouck, 63), 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Sonatane Takulua; 1 Rob Vickers (Ben Harris, 74), 2 Scott Lawson (Kyle Cooper, 74), 3 Jon Welsh (Scott Wilson, 49), 4 Calum Green (Evan Olmstead, 72), 5 Sean Robinson, 6 Mark Wilson, 7 Will Welch (captain), 8 Opeti Fonua (Nili Latu, 49).
Sin bin: Vereniki Goneva (30).
Falcons scorers - Tries: Juan Pablo Socino, Vereniki Goneva 3. Conversions: Joel Hodgson, Sonatane Takulua. Penalties: .
Sale Sharks: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Denny Solomona (Dan Mugford, 72), 13 Will Addison, 12 Mark Jennings, 11 Byron McGuigan, 10 Sam James, 9 Mike Phillips (Peter Stringer, 67); 1 Ross Harrison, 2 Rob Webber, 3 Halani Aulika (Kieran Longbottom, 67), 4 Bryn Evans, 5 Jonathan Mills (Ben Curry, 62), 6 Cameron Neild (George Nott, 62), 7 Magnus Lund, 8 TJ Ioane.
Sharks scorers - Tries: Denny Solomona, Byron McGuigan, Bryn Evans. Conversions: Will Addison. Penalties: Will Addison 3.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys.
Haley, Solomona, James, Jennings, Addison, McGuigan, Phillips, Harrison, Webber, 'Aulika, Evans, Mills, Neild, Lund, Ioane
Replacements Briggs, Flynn, Longbottom, Nott, Curry, Stringer, Leota, Mugford
Tait, Agulla, Harris, Socino, Goneva, Hodgson, Takulua, Vickers, Lawson, Welsh, Green, Robinson, Wilson, Welch, Fonua
Replacements Cooper, Harris, Wilson, Olmstead, Latu, Egerton, Delany, Waldouck
referee: Craig Maxwell-keys
assistant: Tim Wigglesworth
assistant: Peter Allan
TMO: Trevor Fisher