Newcastle Falcons fell agonisingly outside of bonus point range despite a commendable showing at reigning Premiership and European champions Saracens on Christmas Eve.
Newcastle trailed 13-6 at the midway stage after an opening half in which they played a full part, taking the lead as early as four minutes in when Mark Wilson’s aggressive defence helped win a penalty 25 metres out in front.
Joel Hodgson duly slotted it, the hosts hitting straight back from the restart when an obstruction handed Owen Farrell a similarly straightforward penalty.
Unperturbed, Newcastle maintained their full-steam start with a string of forward charges right into the heart of the much-vaunted Saracens pack, making yards with every carry and forcing the European champions into conceding a string of close-range penalties.
Having tried and failed to turn them into a five-pointer with repeated drives and phases, Hodgson eventually called for the kicking tee on 11 minutes to assume a deserved 6-3 lead.
Alex Tait’s cool head at the back saw Newcastle holding their own in the traditional kick-tennis battle, Vereniki Goneva and Marcus Watson offering more of a running threat for a Falcons side who were throwing the kitchen sink at Saracens despite their underdog status.
It was therefore against the run of play when the home side finally took the lead, a line-out in the left corner seeing the ball spun inside for Marcelo Bosch to scythe through unopposed.
Farrell converted, the England man extending his side’s half-time lead to seven points via a 30-metre penalty after Goneva had ruffled their feathers with an 80-metre break down the right.
The half-time interval saw no let-up in Newcastle’s intensity as Callum Chick put in a string of dominant hits, Watson and Evan Olmstead among the willing runners as the men in orange kept the ball in hand.
A rampaging driving maul went all the way from the 22 to two metres out with Mark Wilson at the back, Saracens winning a relieving turnover after a prolonged spell of defensive duty.
The introduction of Opeti Fonua did nothing to diminish Newcastle’s ball-carrying threat as they continued to take the game to Saracens, the Tongan combining with countryman Sonatane Takulua for a blind-side break from the scrum base in an increasingly stop-start game.
The Falcons fell agonisingly outside of bonus point range via Farrell’s 68th minute penalty on the back of scrum pressure and, when Chris Ashton grounded from a long, looping pass to the right corner, the result was beyond doubt.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Marcus Watson (Dominic Waldouck, 51), 13 Fred Burdon, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Vereniki Goneva (Craig Willis, 78), 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Sonatane Takulua (Sam Egerton, 78); 1 Rob Vickers (Ben Harris, 78), 2 Scott Lawson (Ben Sowrey, 55), 3 Jon Welsh (Paddy Ryan, 78), 4 Calum Green, 5 Evan Olmstead (Will Witty, 47), 6 Callum Chick (Opeti Fonua, 45), 7 Mark Wilson (captain), 8 Ally Hogg.
Falcons scorers – Penalties: Joel Hodgson 2.
Saracens: 15 Sean Maitland, 14 Nathan Earle (Chris Ashton, 50), 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Nick Tompkins (Alex Lozowski, 71), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell (captain), 9 Ben Spencer (Richard Wigglesworth, 58); 1 Richard Barrington (Titi Lamositele, 63), 2 Jamie George (Schalk Brits, 50), 3 Vincent Koch (Juan Figallo, 50), 4 Will Skelton (Schalk Burger, 51), 5 George Kruis, 6 Maro Itoje, 7 Michael Rhodes (Joel Conlon, 73), 8 Jackson Wray.
Saracens scorers – Tries: Marcelo Bosch, Chris Ashton. Conversions: Owen Farrell. Penalties: Owen Farrell 3.
Referee: Matthew Carley.
Maitland, Earle, Bosch, Tompkins, Wyles, Farrell, Spencer, Barrington, George, Koch, Skelton, Kruis, Itoje, Rhodes, Wray
Replacements Brits, Lamositele, Figallo, Burger, Conlon, Wigglesworth, Lozowski, Ashton
Tait, Watson, Burdon, Socino, Goneva, Hodgson, Takulua, Vickers, Lawson, Welsh, Green, Olmstead, Chick, Wilson, Hogg
Replacements Sowrey, Harris, Ryan, Witty, Fonua, Egerton, Willis, Waldouck
referee: Matthew Carley
assistant: Roger Baileff
assistant: Andrew Jackson
TMO: David Sainsbury