Leicester Tigers scored four tries in a 36-28 defeat to Newcastle Falcons in the Premiership Rugby Cup on Friday evening.
A last-minute converted score denied a young Tigers team a second bonus point from the evening Kingston Park.
Three tries in a 10-minute period around the mid-point in the first half put the Falcons into a strong position after Archie Vanes had claimed his first senior try for Tigers early on.
But some set-piece pressure provided the chance for a score by Kini Murimurivalu which brought the half to a close with the home team in front at 19-12.
After back-to-back wins over Sale Sharks and Wasps in the opening two rounds, Tigers went into the game top of Pool 2, with Falcons three points further behind, but Newcastle claimed the opening try after the restart, and the bonus point, as they chased top spot.
Another score from Vanes after a fine finish by Hosea Saumaki put Tigers in front – and bagged a bonus point of their own – but Falcons quickly worked their way to the tryline agin to lead by a point entering the final five minutes.
Tigers had originally named six debutants in the matchday squad and that became seven with a late-afternoon call-up for Simon Koroiyadi after Olly Robinson stayed behind to be with his wife who is due to give birth. Brett Deacon, who had been leading the coaching team in this competition, also stayed behind as his wife went into labour. Assistant coach Tim Harrison took his place on the touchlines.
The squad included Nottingham Rugby duo Josh Poullet and Nathan Tweedy, with places also for Loughborough Students players David Aniebonam and David Douglas Bridge, and Koroiyadi’s Under-18 League team-mates Morgan Meredith and Chester Owen.
Alex Tait, Luther Burrell and captain Callum Chick provided some experience in the Falcons ranks.
Falcons kicked off on a still evening under clear skies and held ball for the opening five minutes, though Tigers showed plenty of physicality in defence before the forwards were able to build some territory from strong lineout work.
Tigers were forced into an early change when Jacob Cusick came into the midfield for skipper Taute and claimed the first score of the evening.
A scrum penalty gave Dan Lancaster the chance to push play into the Falcons 22 on the left and, after another offence at the lineout, he drilled his next kick to the five-metre line.
From there, Tigers used the lineout to drive for the line and Vanes was in control to score. Lancaster added the extras for a seven-point lead on 16 minutes.
Murimurivalu showed his coolness in defence under a high kick and then broke out from spilled Falcons ball, putting Hosea Saumaki into possession out wide on the left. But Falcons got back to cover and force ball loose on the floor.
For all their early possession, Falcons had not threatened the tryline, but they showed greater cutting edge following a first score on 25 minutes when a break from fly-half Brett Connon found skipper Callum Chick in support and, although Tigers stopped him in front of the posts, ball was quickly played to the left where Nathan Earl dotted down.
Connon was off-target with the conversion attempt but just moments later he found the mark after a try for wing Zach Kerr in the opposite corner to give Falcons the lead at 12-7.
The try came on the back of a 60-metre break by flanker Freddie Lockwood and, when Kobus van Wyk brought Connon down just short of the line, Falcons recycled quickly and Kerr found his way to the line on the right.
Connon was the creator again with a third try just after the half-hour, breaking through to put centre Max Wright in to score next to the posts. The conversion stretched the lead to 19-7.
A lineout drive from a penalty gave Tigers a chance to test the home side’s pack but when Vanes was stopped just a couple of metres out, the whistle from referee Sara Cox set up a repeat. More penalties followed and, playing with advantage again, Tigers opened play to the left where Lancaster found Saumaki and, when the Tongan was closed down, Murimurivalu arrived in support and showed his strength to get over the line.
The perfect conversion from Lancaster on the touchline brought the half to a close with Falcons’ lead cut to 19-14.
The start of the second half was punctuated by a couple of injury delays, with Kobus van Wyk yellow-carded after contact with the head of Nathan Earle.
Winger Earle was replaced by George Wacokecoke and his first touch was to score in the left-hand corner following the penalty and take the lead to 24-14 with a bonus-point bagged.
Sam Edwards was introduced at scrum-half, after being released from the England Under-20s squad, and his box-kick was dropped by Falcons on the edge of their 22. But Tigers were penalised at the scrum and then backpedalling as the hosts broke out down the left before spilling possession upfield.
A kick from Juan Pablo Socino took Tigers up to the opposition 22 and when a penalty followed, the Tigers pack kept play in the corner but Sean Jansen was denied a debut score when the TMO brought attention to obstruction at the lineout.
Jansen was back on the ball as Tigers kept play in Falcons territory, playing through phases, recycling for Edwards on the floor until the home side knocked ball loose in contact.
The hosts lost prop Adam Brocklebank to a yellow card in defence as Tigers sent on 17-year-old fly-half Morgan Merdith for a first taste of senior rugby on 64 minutes, and he was quickly involved as Tigers built play on halfway and Saumaki burst through a tackle on the touchine torace clear and score.
Socino’s conversion made it 28-24 in Tigers’ favour but the lead lasted only a minute as Falcons used a penalty to the corner to drive to the line and hooker Robbie Smith made the score. Connon was unable to add the conversion with Falcons one point in front and five minutes left on the clock.
There were just 90 seconds left when Newcastle turned down a kick at goal to go to the corner again in a bid to deny Tigers a losing bonus point and with the clock into its final few seconds, they created the chance and Alex Tait grabbed the score.
Connon’s conversion kick pushed the gap out to eight points in the final action of the evening.