A last-minute try saw Newcaastle Falcons snatch all five points in Friday’s Aviva Premiership northern derby, keeping their semi-final hopes alive.
The Falcons looked to have allowed a 25-0 lead to slip through their fingers until the very last moment, when Rob Vickers ploughed over from the fringes of a close-range ruck on a night of high drama.
Newcastle showed aggression and a willingness to attack right from the off, Gary Graham marking his long-awaited comeback from injury with an early break which saw the Cumbrian powering from his own try-line all the way to half-way.
Only five minutes had elapsed before the Falcons assumed a deserved early lead, Joel Hodgson chipping over a penalty from in front, his side buoyed by a fast-paced offloading game with which the Sharks were struggling to cope.
It got even better for the Falcons on 10 minutes when, playing advantage from a penalty 10 metres out, the ball was spun left to Chris Harris and on to Sinoti Sinoti, who fed lock Calum Green for a try in the left corner, the Norfolk native finishing powerfully for an unconverted score.
Graham needed the nod of the video referee to add a second try on 15 minutes when he ploughed through the middle of the close range ruck down the left for a converted try, Joel Hodgson the man to slot it after pulling the strings for much if his side’s fine early attacking work.
The point-a-minute pattern continued all the way until the quarter mark when Simon Hammersley scythed through for his team’s third try, the full-back fed by Harris from a break which started with a Vereniki Goneva break down the right before a quick transfer along the line.
The four-try bonus point arrived on 28 minutes when a Sale lineout near the Falcons’ try-line ended up being the platform for a length-of-the-field counter-attack, Michael Young racing to halfway before feeding Goneva and Hodgson. Will Witty took the ball to within striking distance with a powerful run down the left hand side, and from a close-range ruck it was hooker Scott Lawson who ploughed his way over.
Sale’s attempts to grab a foot-hold in the game took flight on 32 minutes when the video referee awarded Ben Curry a try between the posts as the flanker scooped up a loose ball, AJ MacGinty adding the simple conversion.
And the Sharks showed further bite before the break, a patient period of attack inside the home 22 ending with Marland Yarde scoring in the right corner from a penetrating diagonal run, MacGinty again slotting the extras to reduce the Falcons’ half-time lead to 25-14.
Sake’s resurgence continued into the early portion of the second half when MacGinty slotted a penalty from the 22, Newcastle failing to roll away at a ruck, and the American repeated the trick on 54 minutes from similarly simple range to reduce the Falcons’ lead to just five.
With both sides playing for territory the pace of the game dropped markedly from the furious tempo of the opening 40, but Sale took the lead for the first time around the hour mark when Luke James broke down the left and fed Yarde on the inside for his second try, MacGinty converting.
Newcastle turned to their bench for answers with four fresh bodies immediately called for, both sides hoisting a barrage of box kicks as the play remained constrained to the middle third for the majority.
With fingernails bitten the home side assumed a one-point advantage going into the last 11 minutes via a well-struck Hodgson penalty from 40 metres, Sale finally penalised for the midfield offside with which they had been getting way for much of the evening.
MacGinty hit back with a simple penalty from the 22 to nudge the Sharks ahead on 73 minutes, setting up a monumental finish in which the Falcons fans played a full part.
Every one of the 7,021 in attendance was in full voice as Rob Vickers ploughed over in the very last minute to win a game that had everything, Joel Hodgson’s conversion putting the cherry on top of the cake.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Vereniki Goneva, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Michael Young (Sonatane Takulua, 59); 1 Sam Lockwood (Rob Vickers, 59), 2 Scott Lawson (Santiago Socino, 59), 3 Scott Wilson, 4 Calum Green, 5 Will Witty (Evan Olmstead, 59), 6 Will Welch (captain, Ryan Burrows, 71), 7 Gary Graham, 8 Ally Hogg.
Scorers - Tries: Calum Green, Gary Graham, Simon Hammersley, Scott Lawson, Rob Vickers. Conversions: Joel Hodgson 2. Penalties: Joel Hodgson 2.
Sale Sharks: 15 Byron McGuigan, 14 Paolo Odogwu, 13 Sam James, 12 Luke James, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Faf de Klerk; 1 Ross Harrison, 2 Rob Webber (Marc Jones, 69), 3 WillGriff John (Halani Aulika, 67), 4 Bryn Evans (Josh Beaumont, 63), 5 Andrei Ostrikov, 6 Jono Ross (captain), 7 Ben Curry (Tom Curry, 44), 8 Josh Strauss (TJ Ioane, 69).
Scorers - Tries: Ben Curry, Marland Yarde 2. Conversions: AJ MacGinty 3. Penalties: AJ MacGinty 3.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys. Attendance: 7,021.
Hammersley, Goneva, Harris, Socino, Sinoti, Hodgson, Young, Lockwood, Lawson, Wilson, Green, Witty, Welch, Graham, Hogg
Replacements Socino, Vickers, Davison, Olmstead, Burrows, Takulua, Mermoz, Tait
McGuigan, Odogwu, James, James, Yarde, MacGinty, de Klerk, Harrison, Webber, John, Evans, Ostrikov, Ross, Curry, Strauss
Replacements Jones, Tarus, 'Aulika, Beaumont, Ioane, Curry, Cliff, Redpath
referee: Craig Maxwell-keys
assistant: Jack Makepeace
assistant: John Meredith
TMO: Trevor Fisher