Leicester Tigers were beaten 23-25 by a last-minute score from Newcastle Falcons at Welford Road on Friday evening in the final home game of the Aviva Premiership season.
A try for each team in the opening six minutes – from Vereniki Goneva and Jonny May – got the ball rolling in a contest between the teams who started the weekend separated by one place and two points in the table.
Tigers, chasing a place in the play-off stages for a 14th successive year, finally took the lead for a first time at 13-10 on the half-hour after a couple of George Ford penalties but a late kick from Falcons levelled scores before half-time.
A try from Mike Fitzgerald midway through the second half as rain lashed Welford Road provided some breathing space and the lead reached 23-13 with another Ford penalty.
But Goneva’s second of the evening halved the gap with 10 minutes remaining to set up a nervy finish and it was the Falcons who had the last word as Ally Hogg got over for a score to level the game at 23-23 with Tigers a man short before the conversion snatched a first win at Welford Road in two decades.
Falcons went into the game in fourth place in the table, with Tigers in fifth as the season reached its penultimate round.
Tigers welcomed back Manu Tuilagi and Brendon O’Connor after injury, while Ellis Genge made his 50th appearance for the club since his move from Bristol, and Ben Youngs started a Premiership game for the first time since January following his full recovery from a knee injury suffered during the Six Nations.
The Falcons included former Tigers trio Vereniki Goneva, Calum Green and Michael Young, though Toby Flood was counted out by injury, and brothers Mathew and Alex Tait were named on the respective benches.
Ford got proceedings under way in front of a Premiership record crowd for a Friday evening fixture. But it was the visitors who claimed an instant breakthrough and it was Tigers old boy Goneva who provided the score.
Picking up ball at a ruck on the 10-metre line, Goneva stepped the first tackler and went clear to score a 12th league try of the season with just 74 seconds played. Joel Hodgson added the conversion for a 7-0 lead.
The home crowd, though, did not have long to wait for a response, with May providing his 12th try of the season and the 50th in his Premiership career.
Smart work at a lineout and a break from O’Connor had provided the platform and Tigers stayed patient on the five-metre line until they had extra numbers and May dotted down. Ford levelled the scores with a precise kick from wide on the right.
Falcons had to make a change when prop Scott Wilson was hurt in a collision with Sione Kalamafoni just inside Tigers territory but they had the consolation of a penalty which Hodgson struck from the 10-metre line to regain the lead on 12 minutes.
Ford failed to connect cleanly with a drop-goal attempt on 15 minutes after 15 phases of possession, but Falcons were forced into another change when lock Sean Robinson was replaced by Will Witty.
A superb offload in the tackle from Telusa Veainu got Tigers going forward on the left, and O’Connor and Ellis Genge gained more yards before ball was lost on the 22-metre line.
The Falcons then gained a scrum penalty to push upfield, but they were whistled at the lineout for impeding Graham Kitchener, and Ford punted play down the touchline only for Tigers to then miss their man at the throw.
Good work in defence from Tuilagi halted Goneva in his tracks and O’Connor was instantly on to the ball, earning a penalty which Ford prodded down the left touchline.
After Tigers had missed their previous two throws, Kitchener this time took control and the pack set up a maul before May attacked the line. Falcons closed in, only to be penalised as Polota-Nau tidied up possession 15 metres out and Ford added the three-pointer to bring it all-square after 24 minutes.
Hodgson was hurt in the build-up and Falcons had to make a third change in the opening half-hour, with Juan Pablo Socino coming on at fly-half.
Socino’s first duty was to restart play, but moments later he kicked out on the full from halfway inside his own half and Tigers were able to stay in rival territory. Ball was lost in contact, though, and gave the visitors a scrum and a chance to clear again.
Polota-Nau needed physio treatment after the scrum collapsed, but recovered to play his part as Tigers made a mess of the Falcons put-in. Turnover ball allowed scrum-half Youngs to spread play quickly to the right, but Michael Young covered a kick in behind from Ford as Tigers threatened.
An illegal challenge on Kitchener at the next lineout brought anther penalty and a first opportunity for Tigers to go in front on the scoreboard with just over half an hour played. Ford struck it cleanly to make it 13-10.
It was the 35th minute before Falcons made their second visit of the evening to the Tigers 22 and they got a penalty as they set up a lineout drive and chose to go to the corner. The Tigers defence looked to have repelled the threat with a well-timed push as Falcons landed, but referee Luke Pearce blew for a penalty for a side entry.
Falcons went again but Tigers piled in bodies to stop their charge. The drive got as far as the five-metre line before Tigers stole ball on the ground, but again the penalty went against them. This time Socino went for the kick and made it 13-13, and it stayed that way up to half-time.
The rain fell heavily throughout the break and Tigers started the second half positively with a penalty into the corner, but Falcons stayed on the ball and there was no way through.
Falcons missed an attacking lineout of their own but had a second chance on the 22 and this time threatened the line before spilled ball led to what Tigers believed was a vital score at the other end.
Polota-Nau carried out, Tuilagi took up play and when Adam Thomsptone kicked upfield, May beat team-mate Youngs to the final touch. Ford had the ball on the tee for the conversion but was stopped from taking the kick as the referee consulted the TMO and acknowledged there had been a knock-on by both sides near the Tigers line. The first offence came from the Falcons so Tigers had the put-in and gained a penalty as the opposition wheeled illegally, though it was little consolation for the big home crowd.
Tom Youngs replaced Polota-Nau and Tigers gained an immediate penalty with a good drive on the right touchline. Ford judged his kick to perfection into the corner and Fitzgerald provided the finishing touch for the second try as the forwards gained forward momentum. Ford drilled the greasy ball through the posts for the conversion to make it 20-13 with the clock approaching the hour mark.
A mistake from Socino conceded field position again for Falcons but Tigers could not find a gap in defence and had to be content with a scrum near halfway.
The Tigers pack started to gain ascendancy in the scrum, earning another penalty which the crowd cheered all the way through the posts as Ford stretched the lead to double figures.
Toomua, who had battled on after a knock early in the second half, made way with 15 minutes remaining, and Mathew Tait's first work was in the heart of the defence as Falcons built possession with the forwards and gained a penalty in an attacking position on the right.
The Tigers pack stood up to the drive, but when Falcons went again, Goneva powered up towards the line with the ball and provided a second try on the right.
Mike Williams made his return to the action after injury as Tigers got forward once more, May looking to wriggle clear before the Falcons defence closed in.
With two minutes remaining, Kalamafoni was yellow-carded as he was caught offside attempting to get back into the line. He had also clashed heads with Fitzgerald and Tigers also lost the second-rower as he was led to the touchline. Falcons had the penalty and went into the corner against their outnumbered rivals.
The defence won the initial contest but Falcons kept going with phase after phase within reach of the line with the clock already in the red. Twice they were pushed backwards by defensive hits, but retained ball until Hogg reached over at a ruck on the line. The referee and TMO were involved in lengthy debate before the score was finally awarded and snatched victory from the Tigers.
Sonatane Takalua took on the conversion and, with the Tigers team rushing out towards the kicker, struck the winning points to wrestle the initiative back in the race for play-off places.