Vereniki Goneva’s hat-trick set Leicester on their way to a comfortable 36-17 win over Newcastle.
The Tigers were looking to lay down an early marker following last year’s semi-final disappointment, while the Falcons were out to prove they can be more than relegation-strugglers.
An evenly-contested first half suggested the Falcons might be able to do just that.
Neither side could breach their opponents’ try-line, but it was the Tigers who headed into the break with a decent lead, thanks to four Freddie Burns penalties.
But the visitors also acquitted themselves well and held their line in tact despite heavy pressure for sustained periods. Juan Pablo Socino’s three-pointer got them off the mark just shy of the half hour, and they headed into the break with the win still within reach.
And when Richard Mayhew crossed the line just seconds after the restart, the upset was on.
But a ruthless response from the defending champions in the minutes that followed put paid to any hopes of an first-round shock.
Goneva grabbed his first just three minutes later when he snapped up Manu Tuilagi’s deflected offload. Burns was wide with the conversion, but he was on target less than ten minutes later after providing the assist for Goneva’s second.
And Goneva completed a remarkable 17-minute hat-trick just after the hour when he turned defence into attack with an intercept, and had the pace to stream away from the scrambling Newcastle defence to score.
David Mele then benefited from clever play by Robert Barbieri to put the result beyond doubt, before Newcastle’s Andy Saull claimed a consolation try following a well-executed catch and drive.
Tries: Goneva 3, Mele
Conversions: Burns 2
Penalties: Burns 3
Tries: Mayhew, Saull
Conversions: Socino 2
Leicester: 15 Niall Morris, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Manusamoa Tuilagi, 12 Seremaia Bai, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs (c), 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Sebastian De Chaves, 3 Fraser Balmain, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Logovi’i Mulipola.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Tom Bristow, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Jamie Gibson, 20 Robert Barbieri, 21 David Mele, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Matt Smith.
Newcastle: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Sinoti Sinoti, 13 Adam Powell, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Noah Cato, 10 Phil Godman, 9 Mike Blair, 8 Ally Hogg, 7 Will Welch (c), 6 Richard Mayhew, 5 Josh Furno, 4 Calum Green, 3 Oliver Tomaszczyk, 2 George McGuigan, 1 Rob Vickers.
Replacements: 16 Scott Lawson, 17 Alex Rogers, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Dom Barrow, 20 Andy Saull, 21 Ruki Tipuna, 22 Alex Tuilagi, 23 Gonzalo Tiesi
Referee: Luke Pearce
Assistant Referees: Andy Watson, Nigel Carrick
TMO: David Grashoff
* Planet Rugby