Newcastle Falcons showed that they could compete on the big stage again, after a well-earned 24-13 triumph over Tonga.
The Falcons were in fine fettle, running in three tries to extend their barn-storming run to 12 wins out of 12 for the season.
Tonga, who jetted into Newcastle on the back of a narrow 28-23 loss in Italy, opened the scoring five minutes into the contest when Uamano Fono crossed the whitewash from close-range.
The robust No.8 scooped the ball up from a scrum five-metres out from the Falcons try line, before scything past winger Ryan Shortland to squeeze in at the corner. Eddie Paea failed with the touchline conversion and the visitors led 5-0.
The Falcons responded in positive fashion, with a period of sustained pressure inside the Tongan 22, which all stemmed from the award of a Falcons penalty on half-way. Hodgson kicked to the corner, and from the resulting line-out the northeasterners formed a dominant rolling maul with Sean Tomes going within inches of the line.
And the Falcons made sure that their pressure counted thanks to a try from Scott MacLeod, who crashed over the line despite the attentions of a cluster of Tongan heavies.
Centre James Fitzpatrick was the catalyst for the score, as the Shieldsman breached the visitors’ rearguard at will only to be hauled down just a whisker from the line. MacLeod took the initiative to get his outfit back in to the game.
Joel Hodgson made no mistake with the conversion to put the Falcons 7-5 in front.
Defence coach Graham Steadman will have been pleased with what he witnessed from his side in the minutes that immediately followed.
With Tonga camped inside the Falcons’ 22, the Falcons’ defensive resolve was tested to the limit following a series of no-nonsense carries. Soane Tonga’uiha’s charge towards the line was the pick of the bunch as the Pacific Islander’s looked to regain the advantage. Such was Tonga’uiha’s physical prowess he was unable to pull on the No. 1 jersey before the game, instead opting for 16.
Five minutes from the interval Joel Hodgson had the chance to extend his side’s lead by virtue of a penalty, after Tonga were penalised for an infringement at the ruck. From 35-metres out in front of goal the former RGS pupil could only pull his effort wide of the upright.
In the build-up to the award of the penalty Shortland demonstrated that he was getting back to his best, as he left three Tongan defenders in his wake with an explosive run before being tackled.
Tonga came out for the second period gunning for an early score that would put them back in the ascendancy. A drill into the corner by fly-half Paea put the hosts on the back-foot, before Tonga were awarded a penalty from the subsequent lineout, which Paea duly slotted home with aplomb for a slender 8-7 lead.
The Tongan’s were not the only ones looking to play exhibition rugby in front of an excited Kingston Park crowd. Newcastle were keen to play an expansive game too, and Dean Richards’ men got reward for their adventure in attack. Giving the ball plenty of air in the backline, Chris York spurted through a gap after Hodgson, Andrew Higgins and skipper Alex Crockett illustrated their nimble hand work. York’s attempted pass was palmed into touch by a Tongan defender, and after securing good ball at the lineout, the North East unit went on the rampage with a series of marauding drives.
Edging closer to the line, the Falcons managed to get over the chalk only for referee Sean Davey to deem the attacker to be held up over the line. Mr Davey awarded the Falcons a penalty try at the scrum that ensued, and Hodgson added the extras to make it 13-8.
Moments later the Falcons were over the line once more, this time in emphatic style courtesy of South Cumbrian Mark Wilson.
Wilson finished off a blockbusting move which saw Alex Tait break through the Tongan defensive line with ease, and backing himself against his opposite number before offloading to Wilson for the try. Hodgson’s conversion made it 21-8.
On 74 minutes Tonga wowed the locals on the terraces with a magnificent try thanks to a sweeping backline move involving centres Alipate Fatafehi and Will Helu. The latter finished off the move at full tilt in the far corner after an exquisite pass from Mateo Malupo. Paea was unable to get enough purchase on the conversion and the Falcons held the lead at 21-13.
The Falcons were soon back-up the field and earned a penalty with the head in the scrum, which Hodgson converted to give his side a 24-13 victory.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Andrew Higgins, 13 Alex Crockett (c), 12 James Fitzpatrick, 11 Ryan Shortland, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Warren Fury, 1 Grant Shiells, 2 Matt Thompson, 3 James Hall, 4 Sean Tomes, 5 James Goode, 6 Scott MacLeod, 7 Mark Wilson, 8 Chris York
Replacements: 16 Michael Mayhew, 17 Scott Wilson, 18 James Hallam, 19 Joe Robinson, 20 Jordi Pasqualin, 21 Waisea Luveniyali, 22 Jamie Helleur, 23 Ally Hogg
Tonga: 15 Setaleki Lu’au, 14 Mateo Malupo, 13 Will Helu, 12 Alipate Fetafehi, 11 Apakuki Ma’afu, 10 Eddie Paea, 16 Soane Tonga’uiha, 2 Aleki Lutui, 3 Tevita Mailau, 4 Josh Afu, 5 Sione Timani, 6 Hale T-Pole, 7 Nili Latu (c), 8 Uamano Fono
Replacements: 17 Kisi Pulu, 18 Samisoni Masima, 19 Sione Vaiomounga, 20 Taniela Moa, 21 Sukanaivalu Hufanga, 22 Vungakoto Lilo, No number Alisona Taumalolo
Referee: Sean Davey