Leicester Tigers finally found their stripes up in Newcastle, winning only their seventh – but possibly most vital – game of the season.
The victory, thanks to two Guy Thompson tries and one from Jonny May will surely see them survive a shock relegation.
They are not out of the woods yet, still down in ninth, but by beating Newcastle can finally breathe one of the biggest sighs of relief in their history.
Leicester Tigers recorded a crucial seventh win of the season at Newcastle
The Falcons battled on to the last, but were denied, despite superb showings from Tane Takulua – who took 17 of their points, Mark Wilson, Rodney Ah You and Simon Hammersley.
There was a late scare for Leicester and England, though, as Manu Tuilagi went off with eight minutes left holding his hamstring.
Geordan Murphy said it was just cautionary to take the centre off inside the final 10 minutes.
Guy Thompson scored twice as Leicester edged towards Premiership survival
‘Manu had a tight hamstring,’ he said. ‘We don’t know whether it was cramp or something pinged but he has had issues with his hamstrings before so we will look after him.’
And Murphy once again insisted Leicester will not limp to the drop now.
‘I never felt we were going to go down,’ he added. ‘You don’t want to sound complacent but I don’t think we are going to down, and there will be a few more surprises in this Premiership.
‘We are too good of a side to even think about that. I never said to the boys we were looking down, it’s not something we’ve thought of. We are looking up. Hopefully that will spur us on.’
With no away win all season, minus 151 points difference, 69 tries and 532 points conceded this season – all the worst in the league – Leicester were listing before this one.
Leicester Tigers celebrate after Thompson scores their second try of the evening
But after half an hour all that hand-wringing and brow-furrowing seemed so misplaced. Tigers were in control, 13-0 up and perhaps for the first time this season looked good and felt comfortable.
The quality – so lacking for large swathes of this season – came from Thompson and May. The flanker made a burst down the right wing after 17 minutes and flicked a stupendous offload out the back of his hand to the on-rushing May.
The Tiger went skipping past two defenders all the way home, and Ford converted to add to two penalties.
The Falcons were denied at Kingston Park despite a superb showing from Tane Takulua
He missed the third, hitting a post, but it did not seem to matter too much.. Yet.
Belatedly, the Falcons then found their wings. Hammersley zipped through a hole – one of thousands to exploit a porous Leicester defence this year – and went off down the right.
In behind and with Tigers reeling, Takulua fed George McGuigan and he popped to Chris Harris on a great short line. The centre scored and his scrum-half converted.
Falcons co-captain oby Flood looks dejected after the full-time whistle blows
Then in a flash, Newcastle were at it again. From a scrum they went blind, Niki Goneva embarrassed Jordan Olowofela, stepping past him, and then had the support of Takulua who saw off Ford to steam in. His first wide conversion attempt was charged early by May, but on the second shot Takulua missed.
From nowhere, Newcastle were one point back and those Leicester brows re-furrowed.
But, just when the Falcons were starting to soar after the break – with Rodney Ah You at prop particularly prominent – they were shot from the sky.
Toby Flood threw a wide pass to his back and Thompson intercepted and ran 50 metres to score. When Ford converted Leicester’s lead was eight.
Leicester captain George Ford kicks a conversion against Newcastle on Friday evening
Newcastle came storming back. At a driving maul Leicester’s line splintered so fast the shrapnel almost flew into the north terrace.
Mike Williams, the Tigers flanker, brought the rampaging black mob down, though, and referee Wayne Barnes sent him to the sin-bin.
Takulua then sniped and dotted down from the next phase. May tried to charge his conversion early again – Takulua missed, but was allowed another shot and banged it over.
With 15 minutes left, Leicester lost their heads again. Ellis Genge took Flood out late and with no arms after the No 10 had kicked clear, and the subsequent penalty from where the ball landed was knocked over by Takulua for the lead.
Leicester head coach Geordan Murphy embraces Ford after an invaluable victory
But then Thompson just managed to sneak under a pile of bodies to score, and after it was confirmed by the TMO Rowan Kitt Ford waited the full 90 seconds allotted to hit the conversion from in front of the posts.
Genge made another error, blocking Hammersley’s leap for a cross-kick aimed at May which saw a score chalked off.
With time ticking, and Kingston Park roaring, Newcastle drove, Dan Cole conceded a penalty but clung on by their claws for their first away win all season. Not before time.
Newcastle boss Dean Richards vowed to fight on. ‘We fought back and should have won it,’ he said.
‘It’ll come down to the last game of the season. We’re in control of our own destiny.’
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