Northampton Saints’ top-four aspirations now hang by a thread after Chris Boyd’s side were beaten 18-10 at Kingston Park by Newcastle Falcons on Monday evening.
Defence got the better of attack in a disjointed opening 40 minutes; James Grayson and Falcons’ fly-half Brett Connon exchanged one penalty each to leave the scores locked at 3-3 at the interval, with both Tom James and Callum Chick seeing yellow during the first half.
And although Paul Hill’s try looked as though it might spark a Northampton victory in the North East, the hosts hit back through Adam Radwan and Chidera Obonna to the delight of the 1,750 supporters in attendance for the first Gallagher Premiership match to see crowds return.
The hosts turned down three kickable early penalties as Saints found themselves on the wrong side of referee Matthew Carley, but Northampton made them regret that decision as Lewis Ludlam won a crucial turnover and James Grayson was able to clear.
Saints’ No.7 however found himself offside moments later, and it was his back-row partner Teimana Harrison who made a big hit on former Northampton favourite Luther Burrell to force another turnover.
Carley grew unhappy with the scrummaging and issued an early warning to both sides after just 13 minutes – and the referee was in the thick of it again shortly after following a George Wacokecoke break, as James made a tackle which Carley adjudged to be a deliberate knock-on, meaning the scrum-half was given his marching orders for 10 minutes.
But after 17 minutes, Newcastle No.8 Chick also saw yellow for a deliberate knock-on, penalised right on Saints’ try-line as the visitors looked to break from deep.
David Ribbans produced another vital turnover on Northampton’s own try-line, with neither side able to draw blood while both were down to 14.
Tom James then re-entered the action just as Saints began to gather some momentum, winning a scrum penalty which Grayson sent into the corner, but this time it was Falcons’ turn to defend heroically with Ribbans eventually forced into a knock-on five metres out.
The deadlock was finally broken three minutes before the break as Newcastle were pinged for crossing just inside their own half, and Grayson struck the penalty straight through the uprights for 3-0.
But as Saints looked to absorb some more Falcons pressure as the clock ticked into the red, the visitors were caught offside and finally the hosts took a shot at goal – Connon levelling the scores as the teams headed back into the sheds.
Northampton applied more pressure at the start of the second half, and just as Grayson looked to release Ollie Sleightholme, Newcastle were penalised for a deliberate knock-on – although this time Carley did not reach for his yellow card.
It took a moment of magic from Grayson to finally unlock the Falcons’ defence 11 minutes into the second half, as his underarm pass put Hill through a gap and the tighthead prop charged over the whitewash to score his second-ever Northampton try.
However, that score seemed to spark the Falcons into life and after Hill was penalised at scrum time and Connon sent the ball into the corner, Radwan sniped over a few phases later – with the Newcastle fly-half nailing his touchline conversion to level the scores again.
Falcons took the lead for the first time in the game after 62 minutes as they won a scrum against the head on Saints’ 22, before spinning the ball wide for Obonna to dive in for a try.
And while Connon missed that conversion, he struck a killer blow from the tee five minutes from time as Saints looked for a late comeback, landing a penalty to take the lead to eight points and put the game to bed.
Saints have almost a fortnight to regroup before taking on Wasps on home soil on Saturday 28 May, for what will be the first match with a limited-capacity crowd allowed to finally return to Franklin’s Gardens.