Leicester Tigers were beaten 32-31 by a last-minute converted try from Newcastle Falcons in the Premiership Rugby Cup at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Wednesday evening.
The visitors led by 10 points at half-time but Tigers fought their way back into the game after the break, finally taking the lead in the final quarter of an hour and claiming five tries in total before Falcons grabbed a winning score in the final minute.
Falcons had led from the eighth minute of the third-round fixture before a score from hooker Tim Horton, but Tigers trailed 15-5 at the break.
A succession of scores ticked over in the second half as tries from Sean Jansen and Joshua Manz were matched by the visitors and two scores in just over two minutes from replacement hooker Archie Vanes at lineout drives finally put Tigers in front with less than quarter of an hour remaining before the final response from the visitors.
After a home win over Wasps in the previous round, Tigers made just two changes to the starting line-up, with Kini Murimurivalu and Tom Manz coming into a team captained by prop James Whitcombe for a third successive cup tie.
Making a third trip to Leicester since the end of August, Falcons were captained by former Tigers scrum-half Michael Young and included the experience of Alex Tait and Tian Schoeman in their line-up.
Tigers spent the early period of the game on the attack, with testing carries from Murimurivalu and No8 Jansen before Josh Manz proved a nuisance at a ruck on the edge of the Falcons 22, helping to keep play in that area of the field.
But the visitors broke out on nine minutes to claim the opening points of the evening as Alex Tait followed an awkward bouncing ball in-goal to get the final touch.
Tigers were held up over the tryline as they looked for a response from kick-off, but a try did come moments later, with Horton capitalising on the strength of Murimurivalu and then Hosea Saumaki who fought off a queue of would-be tacklers on the touchline to set up the hooker’s run-in.
There was barely time for the scoreboard to record it before Falcons added their second, full-back Elliott Obatoyinbo providing the finish on the left and Schoeman’s conversion gave them a seven-point lead by midway through the opening half.
Sam Edwards had to clear up a teasing kick towards the Tigers tryline and the left boot of Murimurivalu took play out of the danger area, though Tigers had to spend a spell in defence as Schoeman added a penalty for a 10-point lead on the half-hour.
Jansen took three defenders with him as he picked up at a scrum and Falcons were penalised for offside as they retreated, giving Tigers the chance to play into the opposition half. A second whistle followed but Walsh was off target with his place-kick.
Back-rower Jansen prevented Falcons progress after the restart as he wrapped up ball at their lineout 10 metres out, but Tigers were penned back as Obatoyinbo found his way through broken field, only to see the chance lost when George Wacokecoke dropped the pass in front of the posts.
A good scrum provided an opening for Joseph Woodward to attack on the right and, with no advantage coming, the referee brought play back for Walsh to put the ball into the right-hand corner and the forwards took charge with a big drive to the line as Jansen made the score.
The whistle blew at the other end moments later and Schoeman kicked the three-pointer for a 10-18 lead.
But Tigers used another lineout to create a position for a third try, with Jansen carrying strongly again before the younger Manz brother arrived to score next to the posts and Walsh added the extras to put a single point between the teams.
That margin lasted just a few minutes as Alex Tait scored a third for Falcons following a smart exchange of passes with hooker Charlie Maddison, and the conversion was added by Schoeman.
But another lineout and another drive, finished by replacement hooker Vanes, banked a bonus point for Tigers and the kick from Walsh brought the margin back to one point with 15 minutes remaining.
Tigers repeated the drill from further out just two minutes later, Vanes again on the ball for a full 20 metres to add his second try and put his team in front. Walsh kicked to make it 31-25.
Vanes sensed a hat-trick as he peeled off the side of a maul and took play 30 metres upfield on a solo run, but Falcons blocked out the next phase to clear their lines and they were rewarded with one final chance following a penalty near halfway as the clock ticked into the 79th minute. They kicked to the right and, playing with another penalty advantage from a collapsed maul, kept the ball until hooker Ollie Fletcher made the score and gave Louie Johnson the opportunity to win the game with the conversion from the right-hand side.