Guy Thompson scored two tries as Leicester Tigers earned a 27-22 victory at Newcastle Falcons on Friday evening.
Tigers looked in control as they led 13-0 on the half-hour following Jonny May’s 11th Premiership try of the season as they enjoyed the bulk of possession and field position. But two tries in three minutes brought Falcons right back into it and it was the visitors who were happy to hear the half-time whistle from referee Wayne Barnes with a one-point lead at 12-13.
An interception try from Thompson early in the second half stretched the advantage to eight points but Sonatane Takulua scored again to trim that to a single point once more and then kicked them in front at 22-20 with Mike Williams in the sin bin.
Thompson added his second of the night and then played his full part in a big defensive effort with Falcons on the Tigers line in the last minute to secure the four points.
With Tigers just five points ahead of bottom-of-the-table Newcastle at kick-off in this Round 19 clash, this was a big game in the context of the Gallagher Premiership season.
Matt Toomua continued at full-back for Tigers in the absence of Telusa Veainu, Jonah Holmes and George Worth, while Gareth Owen joined Manu Tuilagi in midfield following Kyle Eastmond’s injury in defeat against Exeter in Round 18. Jake Kerr came into the front row as Tom Youngs started a three-game suspension.
Tigers won the corresponding fixture 30-13 last season with tries from Veainu, May and Ben Youngs, but Falcons won the return at Welford Road in Round 21 as they sealed a place in the Premiership semi-finals.
Led out by skipper Ford in the club’s white alternate kit in front of a near-capacity crowd at a chilly and blustery Kingston Park, the fly-half gave Tigers a 3-0 lead almost straight from kick-off.
Toby Flood’s kick-off landed directly into touch and when the scrum on halfway went down, Ford landed his penalty.
Two long kicks from Ford and two cheeky kicks in behind the defence from Toomua gave Tigers a chance to keep the pressure on their hosts and although Ford then saw a drop-goal attempt charged down, the visitors stayed on the ball until Falcons gathered in defence, though they lost Flood to a head knock in the process.
The opening try from May – who joined the league’s top 10 all-time scorers last weekend – came after a superb run from Guy Thompson on the right. His offload found the wing and he worked his way clear in restricted space on the right touchline and stepped in to score. Ford added the extras to make it 10-0 on 18 minutes.
Falcons’ best opportunity of the opening quarter followed with a line-break from replacement Brett Connon but strong work in defence pushed play back towards halfway.
A scrum penalty gave Ford a chance to push play to within 10 metres of the tryline but Falcons defended the lineout and then stopped the Tigers out wide.
Flood had just returned from an HIA when he caught a Ford up-and-under kick and a simultaneous tackle from Mike Williams which brought another Tigers penalty 25 metres out. Ford added the kick to go past 500 Premiership points in Leicester colours and make it 13-0.
His next sight of goal came after referee Barnes pulled up Falcons at a scrum and the free-kick became a penalty when prop Rodney Ah You pushed Ellis Genge. Ford, though, struck the post with the kick and Josh Matavesi kicked clear.
Falcons finally got on the board with their first incisive attack and then quickly added a second in the period just before half-time.
First, a 50-metre run from Simon Hammersley ended with George McGuigan popping a pass for Harris to score. And, after adding the conversion, scrum-half Sonatane Takulua ran in the second after smart work from a scrum on halfway by Mark Wilson and wing Niki Goneva. Takulua’s conversion, though, drifted just wide with the teams just one point apart at the break.
The second half opened with a kicking duel from half-back and full-back plus some big hits in defence from the Falcons before a mix-up at a lineout brought a penalty in the hosts’ favour.
But after defending just inside their own half, Tigers got the breakthrough with a try from Thompson, picking off a flat pass from Flood and running clear 60 metres to score. Ford added the kick to make it 12-20 on 49 minutes.
Flood, though, punished some indiscipline on the floor by Tigers with a penalty into the left-hand corner and then saw Mike Williams sin-binned as the maul was brought down just short of the tryline.
Falcons elected for a scrum at the resulting penalty and celebrated a try when Takulua picked up and reached to the line. He pulled his conversion left of the posts, but the referee called for a re-take as May had moved off the line – as he did in the first half at an earlier attempt. This time he added the two points to make it 19-20 approaching the hour mark.
It led to a nervous period in defence as Falcons recycled ball but spilled possession and some strong work in defence from Will Spencer ended the threat.
Tatafu Polota-Nau replaced Kerr in the front row and Ben White entered the action at scrum-half around the hour, but a call from referee Barnes for a no-arms tackle on Flood gave the hosts the chance to go in front for the first time on 64 minutes, Takulua making it 22-20 from 25 metres out.
Williams returned to the field, Tigers having conceded 10 points with 14 men, as the visitors looked for a big finish.
Toomua’s clever kick down the right just beat May, though Falcons got the final touch to give Tigers the throw-in. Polota-Nau’s thumping run off the back almost found the whitewash but Tigers retained ball and Thompson’s quick thinking led to his second try of the evening.
Ford’s conversion made it 22-27 with 69 minutes gone on the clock, though the home crowd did not appreciate seeing him ticking the clock down before adding the kick.
Brendon O’Connor made a big intervention after replacing Williams as he won turnover ball but the offload bounced forward and Falcons had the scrum.
Tuilagi was replaced by Matt Smith, making his 150th Premiership appearance, and he was straight in the action as Tigers broke out of defence and thought they’d scored again through May on the right. The whistle went, though, for obstruction by Genge as Hammersley leapt for the cross kick from Ford.
Falcons returned to Tigers territory and went through 20-plus phases of possession before earning a penalty on the right. Flood kicked to the corner and, when they went to the front of the lineout, Falcons almost reached the line but Tigers hit hard and wrapped up the maul with two minutes left on the clock.
The scrum had to be reset on the Tigers line but they were penalised at the second attempt and were then blown for offside in front of the posts. But the defence stood up again and wrapped up ball as Ford booted the ball off the field to seal the win.