Chiefs 35 Falcons 17
Exeter Chiefs 35
Newcastle Falcons 17
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter Chiefs regained pole position in this season's Gallagher Premiership, brushing aside the attentions of lowly Newcastle Falcons at Sandy Park.
Rob Baxter's side leap-frogged Saracens to return to the summit, producing a five-try victory that ensured normal service was quickly resumed after suffering defeat to Gloucester last time out.
Santiago Cordero, Jack Yeandle and Olly Woodburn all found their way over during a dominant first half display, before Aussie duo Nic White and Greg Holmes wrapped up the points with second half tries.
Fly-half Gareth Steenson converted all five tries in a polished display with the boot to seal an 11th league win of the season.
Newcastle countered with three tries of their own, two of which came from speedster Zach Kibirige and the other from Sonatane Takulua, but that was their only reward on another tough afternoon in Devon for the Falcons.
Back in action at Sandy Park for the first time in six weeks, the Chiefs hoped a return to home comforts would provide them with the perfect remedy having surrendered top spot the week previous with their narrow defeat at Gloucester. Ahead of kick-off, Baxter made six changes to his starting XV, bringing in Greg Holmes and Don Armand up front, while behind Steenson, Ollie Devoto, Olly Woodburn and Alex Cuthbert were also given the nod.
The Falcons, meanwhile, also made a string of personnel changes to their team undone at Bath last time out. In the centre, Johnny Williams returned for the first time in two months, Tongan captain Takulua started at scrum-half, while hooker George McGuigan and back-row forwards John Hardie and Callum Chick were also in from the outset.
Despite the new-looks to both teams, it was the home side who started the brighter, taking just eight minutes to claim the first try of the afternoon. It came courtesy of Argentinian full-back Cordero, who was able to slalom his way to the posts, finishing off decent approach work from Cuthbert, who had done well to field a high box kick from Takulua.
Steenson slotted the extras to the score and Exeter’s second, which arrived on 17 minutes, this time through skipper Yeandle. He was the beneficiary of some brutal approach play from the Chiefs forward pack. Messrs Dennis, Hill, Ewers and Kvesic were very much to the fore, using their bodies to batter their way deep into enemy territory. It was a relentless wave of attacks and in the end the Falcons dam burst at the seams, allowing the hooker - who scored exactly six years to the day on his debut for the club - to find his way over.
Already two converted tries adrift, the visitors needed to summon a response of sorts. This they did, hauling a converted score back within three minutes. Tidy build-up play allowed the Falcons to position themselves deep in the Exeter 22, after which they used the advantage for offside by the Chiefs in midfield, to release the dangerous Sinoti Sinoti, who brushed off two tacklers before slipping a simple offload inside to Takulua, who was able to cross from close range. Flood notched the conversion to make it a maximum haul.
It was a rare off-moment for the Chiefs, who quickly regrouped to get back on the attack. Jonny Hill was denied a try for a double movement right on the line, before the Falcons were briefly reduced to 14 men, winger Kibirige yellow-carded for a deliberate knock-on as Woodburn looked to release two men outside of him.
With the man advantage, it took Exeter just a minute to make it pay. Again, the Chiefs pack did the donkey work, laying the foundations for a slick attacking move that saw Ian Whitten ship a simple pass to Woodburn, who was back on the Sandy Park turf for the first time since the opening day of the season. Steenson’s sublime kick from the touchline merely added the coup de grace.
Firmly in control of proceedings, the Chiefs did their best to try and grab the all-important bonus point by the break. However, stubborn resistance from the visitors, coupled with teething problems at scrum time that referee Luke Pearce was doing his best to sort, meant the dying embers of the first half petered out into a somewhat non-event.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 21 NEWCASTLE FALCONS 7
On the resumption, however, the Chiefs were quickly back into their attacking groove. An early penalty to the left corner allowed them to position themselves deep in the Newcastle 22, but as White looked to go wide
Having been stymied on one attack as referee Pearce got in the way of a White pass, the hosts used the resultant scrum as the platform to get their fourth converted try. Told to play the ball from the base, Aussie international White fed Devoto on a bullocking run, although he was felled just shy of the line by the Newcastle defence, White was quickest to react, sniping through a gap to claim the score.
As they did in the first half, the Falcons countered quickly, reducing the arrears with their second try of the game. Kibirige was the scorer on this occasion, scorching over in the right-hand corner after being released by centre Chris Harris.
It would prove a rare bright spot for the visitors, who were struggling to make any headway against their ferocious hosts. More industrious work from a catalogue of ever-willing runners allowed the Chiefs to once again position themselves in strike range, the fruits of which eventually resulted in a rare score for Aussie tight-head Holmes.
Steenson, as he had done all afternoon, plundered the extras from wide on the right flank to maintain his 100% record for the afternoon.
With the game and the points safely secured, all that was left for the Chiefs to do was to flex their muscles in the final quarter. Baxter emptied the bench, allowing everyone the chance to play their part, and it was one of the replacements, Joe Simmonds, who thought he had provided the scoring past for Cuthbert to cross just seven minutes form time.
Sadly for the Welshman, Pearce adjudged Simmonds’ pass to be forward and the try was chalked off, much to the disappointment of the masses packed into Sandy Park.
The final word, however, went to the visitors who - with virtually the last passage of the game - claimed a third try when Kibirige was able to race over half the field for a fine individual score.
In truth, it mattered not to the Chiefs, who must now ready themselves for next week's testing trip to rivals Sale Sharks.
Chiefs: S Cordero; A Cuthbert, I Whitten (S Hill 65), O Devoto, O Woodburn (J Simmonds 69); G Steenson, N White (J Maunder 64); A Hepburn (B Keast 65), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 59), G Holmes (M Street 65); D Dennis (M Lees 65), J Hill; D Ewers (S Lonsdale 56), D Armand, M Kvesic.
Tries - Cordero, Yeandle, Woodburn, White, Holmes; Conversions - Steenson (5)
Falcons: S Hammersley (T Swiel 65); Z Kibirige, C Harris (B Stevenson 65), J Williams, S Sinoti; T Flood, S Takulua (S Stuart 59); S Lockwood, G McGuigan (S Socino 65), D Wilson (J Payne 9); C Green (W Witty 65), A Davidson (W Witty 15-22, L Mulipola 23); W Welch (capt), J Hardie, C Chick (N Nagusa 51).
Tries - Takulua, Kibirige (2); Conversion - Flood
Yellow Card: Z Kibirige
Referee: L Pearce
* Today's match sponsors are Gamma & Watson Fuels *