Leicester Tigers made it three away wins in a row in the Aviva Premiership with a 30-13 victory over Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park on Sunday to move into third place in the league table.
Tigers led 14-3 with less than 20 minutes gone as the Falcons welcomed a first sell-out crowd in nine years, with the large travelling support cheering tries from Telusa Veainu and Ben Youngs.
But Falcons showed they were not going to be shrugged off as former Tigers wing Vereniki Goneva provided a try on the stroke of half-time, cutting the gap to just four points.
That lead was down to a single point in the opening moments of the second half after a penalty from Toby Flood, but three penalties from George Ford and a 10th try of the season for Jonny May ensured the four points for Matt O’Connor’s men.
Both teams went into the game with four wins and two defeats in the opening rounds of the season, but with Falcons starting the weekend in fourth place – two in front of Tigers – by virtue of their bonus points haul.
Matt Smith made his 150th starting appearance in a Tigers shirt, brought into the midfield alongside Mathew Tait following injury to Gareth Owen and Matt Toomua in the win over Castres a week earlier, while Newcastle captain Will Welch led out the hosts in his 200th appearance.
Referee Wayne Barnes was in charge of his 190th Premiership match, equalling the all-time record of Chris White.
Former Tigers skipper Toby Flood got the game under way for Falcons and the hosts enjoyed multiple phases of play in the opening minutes, though wasted an opportunity when No8 Lili Latu misplaced his pass on the left just as a gap had opened in the Tigers defence.
Tigers repelled another chance from the first penalty of the afternoon, Falcons prodding down the left touchline but unable to execute in the lineout.
The visitors took 10 minutes to gain possession in Falcons territory but made it count with a fifth try of the season from Veainu.
With referee Barnes playing advantage from a lineout, Tigers opted to spin the ball wide, with Mathew Tait finding Veainu and he danced round two defenders to score. Ford added the conversion for a seven-point lead.
But Falcons had an immediate chance to respond when Ellis Genge was whistled for a late tackle on Flood near halfway. Flood recovered to chip over the kick and get the hosts on to the scoreboard.
Nick Malouf showed smart work in defence as Falcons worked on overlap on the left, the Australian stepping in to make the tackle with two men free on the outside, and Tigers quickly turned defence into attack with a second try on 18 minutes,.
Veainu was again involved, breaking the line 25 metres out and then popping a pass for Ben Young to run in to score. Ford’s kick made it 14-3 to the visitors.
Falcons threatened again from the restart, capitalising on loose ball after a knock-on by Mapapalangi, but Brendon O’Connor showed his strength at the breakdown to win a penalty and Tigers were able to clear.
The pace was unrelenting on the artificial surface, with both teams choosing to run the ball rather than kick, and Tigers made their next attack on the back of successive penalties for high tackles in the Newcastle midfield. But, after setting a platform from a lineout, Tigers were unable to add further points when Veainu knocked on.
Another attack, this time with May and Brendon O’Connor carrying strongly, almost brought another opening but Falcons managed to win turnover ball near their own line.
The Falcons defence was being tested, but they weathered the storm and ended the half with their opening score, provided by former Tigers wing Vereniki Goneva.
After phases of play in the Tigers 22, the chance looked to have gone with another loose pass on the left, but Newcastle regained ball and Goneva exchanged passes with Alex Tait to break the cover defence and score. Flood converted to cut the gap to 10-14 with the final action of the half.
Ford got the second half under way and Falcons were immediately on to the attack with a stunning break by Sinoti Sinoti on the left which ended with a penalty and Flood took the chance to add three points to the board and make it 13-14.
Tigers thought they’d added an immediate response when O’Connor dived into the right-hand corner, but referee Barnes confirmed he had dropped the ball in trying to dot down as he ran out of space on the touchline.
Genge timed his run on to a pass from Youngs perfectly as Tigers built phases again, but it was Flood who brought his 30-metre run to a halt and Falcons then won a penalty almost under their own posts as Youngs tried to wriggle free.
Flood then looked to provide a chance for Falcons with a penalty down the left but, despite a well-worked move from the lineout, Tigers snuffed out the danger with more good work from Malouf and then O’Connor who won another penalty as he got over the ball at the breakdown.
Ford brought some breathing space with a penalty from halfway on 53 minutes – his side’s first points since the 18th minute.of the game – as he made it 13-17.
A burst from hooker Kyle Cooper, in the thick of the action all afternoon, had the home crowd on its feet and Leicester had to work hard as Falcons worked the ball to the right and Goneva was held up over the tryline.
The five-metre scrum brought a penalty for Tigers as Dan Cole and company pushed their rivals back and Ford was able to clear up towards halfway.
But Falcons came back again and Ford had to make a tackle on flanker Mark Wilson as he threatened to break to the tryline.
Tigers had to kick clear to relieve the pressure in their own half but weren’t able to build any phases as the lead remained at four points with the game into its final quarter.
More impressive work from O’Connor almost found a gap on the left, but Falcons scrambled back to close the door as Tigers recycled again.
Tigers introduced Sam Harrison, Harry Thacker and Luke Hamilton on 65 minutes and their first involvement brought a scrum penalty 30 metres out. Ford called for the tee and made it 20-13 with his second penalty of the day.
He had another chance with just three more minutes played as replacement Ally Hogg was whistled for a high tackle on Dom Barrow near halfway. And he made no mistake as he stretched the lead to 10 points with 10 minutes to go.
And the travelling support had even more to cheer a minute later when Ford’s precision crosskick found May on the left and he raced clear off Goneva to score in the corner. Ford nailed the conversion from out wide to make it 30-13 and push Tigers towards the victory, their 14th in the last 15 contests between the teams in Premiership rugby.
Adam Thompstone made his seasonal debut as a replacement for Mat Tait as the game restarted and his first involvement was a tackle on Sinoti which ended a promising move for the Falcons in attack and he then won a penalty on halfway to allow Tigers to go again in attack on the right.
Thacker almost reached the tryline as quick recycling had Falcons on the back foot, and the game ended with two penalties in the right-hand corner, but the home side managed to close out any further addition to the scoreline.