Newcastle had to settle for a second successive draw at the start of the new Guinness Premiership season as two late Lee Thomas penalties earned Sale a share of the spoils on a blustery day at Kingston Park.
Thomas held his nerve late on after the Sharks pack had finally exerted some authority over their hosts during a frenetic and scrappy encounter. The 25-year-old kicked three penalties and converted Mark Cueto’s fantastic try, which he helped to create with a beautifully placed chip.
Fly-half Jimmy Gopperth kicked 11 points for the hosts, although he also missed two kickable penalties, while centre Rob Vickerman scored his first try for the Falcons after Sharks flanker Neil Briggs knocked the ball into his hands as he attempted to ground the ball behind his own try line.
The Falcons had made three changes to the side that drew 9-9 at Leeds, as Charlie Amesbury replaced the injured Danny Williams on the wing, Samoa international Filipo Levi made his Premiership debut at number eight and Ed Williamson came in on the blindside flank.
The Sharks moved Thomas to fly-half due to Charlie Hodgson’s stubbed toe, with England star Mathew Tait coming into midfield. British and Irish Lions prop Andrew Sheridan was handed his first start of the season. Sheridan did not enjoy the best of starts as he gave away a free-kick at the first scrum and then saw the Sharks pack turned through 90 degrees at the next engagement.
Those early forward exchanges buoyed the hosts and they came close to taking the lead when they launched an attack from their own 22 before Gopperth found Amesbury with his cross-kick, only for the winger to be adjudged to have been in front of the kicker.
The pressure eventually told as New Zealander Gopperth knocked over two penalties in quick succession for deliberate knock-ons by Thomas and flanker James Gaskell, with the latter harshly being sent to the sin-bin for his troubles on 16 minutes.
Thomas got the visitors on the board with a penalty of his own on a rare Sale foray into the Falcons half and then created a wonderful try against the run of play in the 24th minute. The Welshman placed a delicate chip in behind the home defence and England wing Cueto claimed the bouncing ball to beat Biggs and Alex Tait and race 30 metres to score, with Thomas adding the conversion with the help of the left-hand upright to put the Sharks 10-6 up.
Gopperth kicked his third penalty to narrow the lead to one point before Newcastle were gifted a try by Sale flanker Briggs. Falcons full-back Tait cleared his lines with Vickerman and Amesbury chasing his deep kick. Briggs had the kick covered but knocked on as he attempted to ground the ball behind his own try line, the ball popping into the hands of the grateful Vickerman who dotted down for his first try since signing from Leeds, Gopperth adding the extras.
Sale spent the remainder of the half camped in the Newcastle 22 but Thomas blotted his copybook as he missed with a penalty and drop goal to leave the hosts 16-10 up at the half-time interval.
The frenetic pace of the match continued straight from the restart as the impressive Vickerman made a scything break, but saw his inside pass intercepted which led to some last-ditch defending being required to stop Mathew Tait going over at the other end.
The Falcons should have extended their lead when a quick tap-and-go by lively scrum-half Micky Young forced a penalty, but Gopperth was off target with his fourth penalty attempt. And they were nearly made to pay for that miss when a period of Sale pressure ended with wing Ben Cohen throwing a horrible pass with Cueto free on the outside just 10 yards from the line. It was an error typical of much of the back play on show from both sides.
Gopperth and Thomas then missed a penalty apiece as the game tightened up entering the final quarter, a change of pace which appeared to suit the Sharks as they made plenty of headway through mauling from their line-outs and a series of pick and drives.
The Falcons began to lose their discipline and Thomas’ second penalty trimmed the lead to 16-13 before the hosts were penalised for not rolling away at a ruck, allowing the former Cardiff man to tie the scores with just seven minutes remaining.