Chiefs 14 Falcons 15
Exeter Chiefs 14
Newcastle Falcons 15
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Guy Fawkes weekend offered little sparkle for the Exeter Chiefs as their disappointing home form in the Gallagher Premiership continued with defeat against Newcastle Falcons.
Rob Baxter’s side suffered a third home loss in four starts, leaving them not only well adrift of the division’s pacesetters, but searching for answers in another unusually underwhelming performance.
George McGuigan’s converted early try gave the Falcons the lead for much of a scrappy first half – only for Chiefs full-back Joe Simmonds to level things up with a score which he was also able to add the extras to.
Things continued to prosper for the home side just after the restart as flanker Don Armand crashed over for Exeter’s second score on 50 minutes, but that would be the last of the high points for the Devonians, who were picked off by their stubborn rivals, who added a second try through Ben Stevenson, before replacement Brett Connon potted over the all-important penalty with just ten minutes remaining.
With confidence high in the home camp following their hard-fought victory at Gloucester the previous week, Baxter stuck with a largely unchanged line-up for the visit of the Falcons to the Westcountry. Up front, Jannes Kirsten returned in the back-row for the first time in weeks, while behind Joe Simmonds and Josh Hodge, against his former club, were also handed starts.
The Falcons, meanwhile, made four changes in personnel, drafting in George Wacokecoke at centre; Stevenson switched to the wing in the absence of Argentine flyer Mateo Carreras; while up front there were starts for both Richard Palframan and Will Montgomery.
The early exchanges, as expected, were fairly frantic as the respective packs laid into one another with a plethora of heavyweight collisions. It was, however, the visitors who would strike first.
Having been awarded a penalty – albeit a harsh call against home lock Sean Lonsdale, who appeared to have done well at the subsequent line-out – they used the resultant penalty to position themselves within strike range of the Chiefs line. McGuigan threw into the set-piece, found his man, and when the shove came on – aided by at least three Newcastle backs – it was the hooker who was adjudged to have squirmed his way over for the try, converted by the boot of Joel Hodgson on his 150th appearance for the club.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs would have craved, particularly given their previous struggles against both Northampton Saints and London Irish at home this season, but they did their best to try and rectify matters quickly.
Armand and Kirsten were both industrious around the park, while Jack Nowell and Tom Hendrickson were never shy in coming forward, offering themselves in attack on numerous occasions.
Where the Chiefs were struggling, though, was their failure to hold onto possession for lengthy periods. A core trait of their play in recent years, they are no strangers to going through the phases, eventually forcing their rivals into submission with their multi-phase play.
For some reason, things were failing to stick and it was gifting the Falcons the opportunity to clear their lines and relieve the danger with relative ease.
Turning defence into attack, it was then Dean Richards’ men who were offering the greater threat to the scoreboard. They piled on the pressure as the minutes ticked by, but somehow the Chiefs were able to scramble enough in defence to keep their rivals at bay as the half time hooter looms large on the horizon.
Having repelled the threat from the Northerners, it was the Chiefs who would finish the first period the stronger, forcing a string of penalties that allowed them to set up camp deep behind enemy lines. The initial thrusts came off driving line-outs down the left, before the ball was worked back across the field to the other flank, then back inside where a sublime offload from Ollie Devoto allowed Joe Simmonds to pick a sumptuous line and dive in under the sticks for a score, he was also able to convert.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 7 NEWCASTLE FALCONS 7
Clearly ignited by the score on the stroke of half time, the Chiefs re-emerged for the second half on the front foot, quickly taking the game to their rivals as Nowell and Hodge combined impressively down the left to gain some early territory.
Although they raid came to nothing, the Chiefs threatened again just moments later, this time forcing their way through the Falcons rearguard.
Joe Simmonds set things in motion with a brilliant 50/22 kick in behind the visiting defence – after which the hosts set about taking on Newcastle up front, Harvey Skinner, Alec Hepburn, Sam Simmonds and Kirsten all with big carries, before the Chiefs reverted to type and worked the opening for Armand to drill his way over from close range for the converted score.
In front for the first time in the contest, the Sandy Park were hoping this would be the catalyst for their side to further kick on. Sadly, home joy proved short-lived as first Nowell saw yellow for a deliberate knockdown, then the Falcons struck with the resultant penalty for the Cornishman’s indiscretions.
With the man advantage, the Falcons opted for a shortened line-out wide on the left. With bodies stacked up inside, they caught the Chiefs napping with a slick counter down the blind-side, the fruits of which were served up by winger Stevenson, who was able to glide over unopposed.
Hodgson slid his conversion attempt wide of the near post, before screwing a penalty chance wide of the mark just past the hour mark after home prop Josh Iosefa-Scott had been pulled up for dropping his bind at a scrum.
At the other end, the Chiefs continued to do their best to add to their tally, Jack Maunder was turned over on the Newcastle try-line, whilst at least three other gilt-edged chances came and went, much to the frustration of Baxter and his fellow coaches in the main grandstand.
The Falcons were certainly living dangerously, but when they were able to work their way back down field themselves, they made the most of an indiscretion from Tshiunza, pulling down a maul, to fire themselves back in front with a successful penalty from Connon.
Once again, the Chiefs piled forward in numbers, desperate to restore their advantage with just a handful of minutes remaining. They pushed and probed, but again they were slow to clearing out, gifting the Falcons the opportunity to clear the danger at the crucial moment.
The drama, though, was far from over. With the Falcons looking to kill the clock with some pedestrian antics, a crucial turnover at a line-out just seconds from the end gifted possession back to the Chiefs. The hosts looked to go wide, even winning a penalty for a high hit on Skinner just inside his own half.
It was, however, too far for either Skinner of Joe Simmonds to take on the all-important kick. Instead, the Chiefs punted themselves back to the Newcastle 22, hell-bent on trying to snatch a late, late winner.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Falcons threw caution to the wind on the line-out, disrupting the Chiefs ball enough to win possession back. This time they would make no mistake, clinically sealing off the ball to fire it high into the sky alongside the countless rockets that were bursting into colour around Sandy Park.
Chiefs: J Simmonds; J Nowell, T Hendrickson, O Devoto (I Whitten 62), J Hodge; H Skinner, J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 68); A Hepburn (B Moon 68), J Yeandle (capt), H Williams (J Iosefa-Scott 60); W Witty (C Tshiunza 18), S Lonsdale; J Kirsten, D Armand, R Capstick (S Simmonds 46). Replacements (not used): O Burrows, S O’Brien.
Tries – J Simmonds, Armand; Conversions – J Simmonds (2)
Yellow Card: Nowell
Falcons: M Brown; N Earle (T Penny 70), G Wacokecoke, P Lucock, B Stevenson; J Hodgson (B Connon 70), L Schreuder (C Nordli-Kelemeti 64); A Brocklebank (K Cooper 62, G McGuigan, R Palframan (L Mulipola 19); G Peterson, W Montgomery (G Graham 73); P Van Der Walt, W Welch (capt), C Fearns (C Chick 49). Replacement (not used): R Smith
Tries – McGuigan, Stevenson; Conversion – Hodgson; Penalty – Connon
Referee: A Jackson