Widnes Vikings lost a 14-point lead in the final 10 minutes of their Championship opener, as they were forced to share the points with Newcastle Thunder in a dramatic 30-30 draw.
A late rally by the hosts set up a tense finish to the encounter, and when Widnes regathered a short kick-off in the final minute there were hopes of a drop-goal to snatch a win, but it wasn’t to be as they couldn’t manoeuvre a shot at goal.
Eribe Doro impressed in his first appearance for the club, before his sin-binning late on, with Deon Cross grabbing a brace and Matt Cook scoring his first try before being forced off injured.
The Vikings found themselves behind after two minutes, with an Owen Buckley knock on handing the home side their first opportunity to attack their opponent’s line. From the resulting set, Kieran Gill barged over from close range to open up a four-point lead.
A Matty Smith 40/20 led to the visitor’s first attack of the contest, only for a Jake Spedding error to end their chances of bouncing back straight away.
On 10 minutes Widnes were level though, as Jack Owens kept the ball alive before Smith’s cut-out ball was collected by Deon Cross, who stepped inside to find a gap and cross the try line. Owens converted from out wide to edge the Vikings ahead.
Four minutes later their lead was extended, as Matt Cook scored his first try for the club when he showed great strength to force his way over despite the attention of a number of defenders.
Newcastle were back within two points when Sam Wilde hit Josh Woods’ flat pass at speed on 20 minutes and raced through a hole in the defence, scoring against his former side.
Widnes replied instantly though, as back-to-back penalties advanced them into the Thunder half were a well worked passing move ended in Owens’ firing the ball to Cross who went over in the corner for his second try.
A late tackle on Smith as he sent the ball high into the air on the last tackle gave Owens a simple shot at goal, with the Vikings captain taking the two points on offer and extending the lead to eight points.
On the half hour mark Newcastle hit back to make it a two point game once again, with Ukuma Ta’ai marking his 250thcareer appearance with a try after charging onto Jake Shorrocks’ pass.
The back-and-forth nature of the first half continued up the other end of the field, as Shane Grady marked his return to action with a try when he picked a perfect line and collected Danny Craven’s pass to score.
Widnes had to stand tall and defend their line in the dying stages of the first period before some brilliant play deep in their own half produced an incredible length of the field effort.
Cross skipped across the line to find Grady, who passed back inside to the Vikings winger as he raced into the Thunder half and handed possession to the supporting Owens who had enough pace to find the try line on the hooter.
Half-time: Newcastle Thunder 16-30 Widnes Vikings
In stark contrast to the first half, the second 40 was a war of attrition, with both defences going toe-to-toe and neither attack could find a way through.
The Vikings, in red for the first time this season, had some big performances in the middle from their forwards, notably from Clough and Doro who were forced to play big minutes due to an early injury to Cook.
With just over 10 minutes remaining both sides had a man in the sin bin as Doro and Nathan Wilde came to blows, meaning the teams were both reduced to 12-men.
Some great scramble defence from Owen Buckley denied Alex Clegg a certain try out wide, holding his opposite man up over the try line.
A touch from a Widnes player in the build-up to that try saver gave Newcastle a repeat set though, and Connor Bailey took full advantage to dive over with just eight minutes to go.
With four minutes left a Smith kick was charged down and gave Thunder a chance to attack, which ended in Jack Johnson diving over at the flag to cut the deficit to four points.
The momentum had shifted the way of the hosts and they were level with two minutes of the game remaining, as the ball was put through hands and Gill managed to do just enough to force his way over.
Widnes collected a short kick-off to give themselves a chance to snatch the win, but it wasn’t to be as the game finished all square.
Full-time: Newcastle Thunder 30-30 Widnes Vikings
Newcastle Thunder: Callum Turner, Jack Johnson, Matthew Wright, Kieran Gill, Alex Clegg, Jake Shorrocks, Josh Woods, Nathan Wilde, Connor Aspey, Mikey Wood, Ukuma Ta’ai, Sam Wilde, Liam McAvoy.
Interchanges: Evan Simons, Ted Chapelhow, Jay Chapelhow, Connor Bailey.
Tries: Gill (2, 78), Wilde (20), Ta’ai (31), Bailey (72), Johnson (76) Goals: Wright 3/6
Widnes Vikings: Jack Owens, Deon Cross, Jake Spedding, Ste Tyrer, Owen Buckley, Danny Craven, Matty Smith, Matt Cook, Lewis Else, Eribe Doro, Shane Grady, Adam Lawton, Paul Clough.
Interchanges: Joe Lyons, Lloyd Roby, Josh Wilde, Will Tilleke.
Tries: Cross (10, 24), Cook (14), Grady (35), Owens (40) Goals: Owens 5/6