Fly-half Jimmy Gopperth kicked three second-half penalties to earn Newcastle their fourth Guinness Premiership draw of the season and leave London Irish still searching for their first win of 2010.
Irish deservedly led 12-3 at the break at Kingston Park as back-rowers George Stowers and Steffon Armitage went over from close range after excellent build-up work by the Exiles pack. Gopperth kicked a penalty for the hosts, but was unsuccessful with two other efforts, before slotting three more penalties after the break as the Falcons launched a stirring comeback to tie the scores.
The draw is a further dent in Irish’s play-off hopes and Wasps could potentially overhaul them with victory against Saracens on Sunday.
Newcastle made two changes from the side beaten by Northampton, with number eight Peter Browne taking over from the injured Filipo Levi and flanker Will Welch replacing Josh Afu. Irish were boosted by returning England internationals Paul Hodgson and Armitage, while there was also a recall for Romanian prop Paulica Ion.
The visitors, low on confidence having not won a game in any competition since December 27, were given plenty of early ball after Newcastle failed to gather the kick-off. But the Falcons defended stoutly and comfortably saw off the danger.
Gopperth should have put points on the board as the Falcons were awarded a penalty when they finally got hands on the ball, but the former Wellington fly-half saw his 45-metre effort fall just short. And the New Zealander failed again moments later after the Falcons front row forced their opponents to crumble at a 10th-minute scrum.
There was little for either set of supporters to cheer as the game was dominated by endless bouts of aerial ping-pong, but centre Seilala Mapusua broke off the shackles to set up an Irish counter-attack with a beautiful offload that sent Peter Hewat away. Hewat’s chip ahead forced scrum-half Micky Young to carry the ball out and, from the resulting lineout, Irish rumbled their way over for Stowers to touch down. Full-back Tom Homer failed with the tough conversion.
Irish gained more field position when Gopperth failed to deal with a Chris Malone up-and-under and they took advantage as a series of pick-and-drives saw Armitage burrow over from close range. Homer added the extras to give the Exiles a 12-0 lead.
Gopperth finally got Newcastle on the board with his third penalty attempt after Irish were caught offside but it would have provided little comfort to Steve Bates’ side as they headed to the dressing room at half-time.
Newcastle’s front row had been one of the few positives of their poor first half and they pushed Irish off their own ball in the lead-up to a penalty which Gopperth struck beautifully to narrow the gap to six points five minutes into the second stanza.
The home side continued to up the ante with their best passage of attacking play, with prop Jon Golding producing some powerful carries, as they troubled the Irish defence for the first time in the match and Gopperth narrowed the gap once again with a 54th-minute penalty.
Irish brought on Ryan Lamb for the ineffective Chris Malone at fly-half but they were rocking as they lost two line-outs in quick succession and struggled to contain the fired-up home pack, only for Armitage to win a superb turnover that allowed them to clear their lines.
But the England forward then gave away a needless penalty on halfway and Gopperth hammered the ball between the uprights to tie the scores with just under 15 minutes to play. Newcastle thought they had won it when full-back Alex Tait raced over from Young’s pass, but referee Rob Debney rightly ruled the offload to have been forward.