Falcons 14 Chiefs 15
Newcastle Falcons 14
Exeter Chiefs 15
Mark Stevens at Kingston Park
It wasn’t pretty, indeed it was downright ugly at times, but finally Exeter Chiefs have come out on the right side of one of those games that goes to the wire.
Joe Simmonds’ penalty, two minutes from time, ensured the Devonians made the lengthy trek back through Storm Eunice with a vital victory in terms of their push for the Gallagher Premiership play-offs.
They were, however, pushed all the way by a resilient Newcastle Falcons outfit who had to play for almost an hour a man light following the dismissal of skipper Calum Chick for a high hit on Josh Hodge.
Played out in atrocious conditions in the North East, it was the Falcons who took the lead - albeit against the run of play - through Will Haydon-Wood’s intercepted score midway through the first half.
However, tries either side of the break from Chiefs duo Patrick Schickerling and Jack Innard, one of which was converted by Simmonds, helped give the visitors a deserved lead, before the Falcons came storming back with a second score of their own, hooker George McGuigan stealing over to put the cat amongst the pigeons.
With the Chiefs struggling to make their numerical advantage pay dividends alongside a mis-firing line-out, the Falcons were holding on valiantly as the contest edged towards its dying moments.
Up against it, the Chiefs needed to dig deep into their reserves, particularly as Newcastle were not going quietly. However, with one last throw of the dice, Rob Baxter’s side applied the crucial shove at a scrum, winning them the penalty which Simmonds was able to dispatch with aplomb.
It was a huge moment for the visitors which, in the grand scheme of things, could yet prove a defining moment in Exeter’s seasonal quest.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter made two changes to his starting line-up from that which had defeated Gloucester the previous week.Up front, Sam Skinner was back from international duty to start in the back-row, while Sam Maunder was given the nod at scrum-half.
The Falcons made changes too, including a late one that saw skipper Will Welch ruled out of the contest after he failed a fitness test prior to kick-off.
However, the switch-ups did little to deter an energetic opening in which both sides looked to gain dominance in terms of possession and territory. The Chiefs, though, were setting the tone and with the forwards propelling them deep behind enemy lines, they won a succession of early penalties deep inside the Newcastle 22.
Sadly, that early pressure failed to result in any significant reward. The Falcons put in a catalogue of impressive defensive sets to repel the visiting threat, whilst some poor execution in attack also hampered Exeter’s best efforts.
Hodge - up against his former club - was looking particularly lively at full-back for the Chiefs, who thought their fleet-footed flyer was on course to open the scoring, the young back picking a lovely line through the heart of the Falcons midfield, only to be denied by a superb tap tackle from Haydon-Wood.
Moments later, Hodge could have been in again. He had raced to the outside of the Exeter backline, but Dafydd Jenkins’ intended pass fell behind his team-mate and rolled into touch.
The Chiefs were looking impressive but with the visitors pressing hard in attack, they fell victim to their own attacking endeavours, Haydon-Wood picking off a pass from Sam Maunder to race over half the field for the game’s first try, which he was also able to convert.
Home cheers, though, proved short-lived as within three minutes the Falcons were reduced to 14 men, Chick red-carded for a shoulder high hit to Hodge’s jaw as he looked to collect a high up-and-under. On first viewing it didn’t look good for the Falcons No.8, but numerous TV replays merely added to the guilty verdict.
Down a man, the Falcons were again put back on the defensive. A clever Hodge grubber narrowly failed to find Tom O’Flaherty wide on the left, whilst some strong work from home lock Sean Robinson thwarted the Chiefs at another five-metre maul.
Exeter’s pressure was mounting by the minute and with half time fast approaching, the home dam finally burst when, from another five-metre line-out, Sam Skinner collected the set-piece, his fellow forwards amassed around him, and there was Schickerling to drive over for his third try of the campaign.
HALF TIME NEWCASTLE FALCONS 7 EXETER CHIEFS 7
With little to choose between either side at the break, the Chiefs were forced into change at the start of the half as first Hodge, then Jannes Kirsten, both departed to the sidelines.
Undeterred, the Chiefs picked up from where they left-off at the end of the first half. A series of early penalties positioned them deep into the Falcons half - and after a couple of raids failed to bear fruit, another driving maul hit the target as Innard squeezed over from close range.
In front for the first time, it should have been the catalyst for the Chiefs to kick on further. The Falcons, however, had other ideas and with their forwards causing mayhem to the Exeter line-out, as well as around the breakdown, they were slowly invigorating not only themselves, but those in the stands as well.
Clearly energised in every aspect of their play, the Falcons stunned the Chiefs just before the hour mark when having scythed their way through the heart of the Exeter midfield, the hosts recycled the ball through a handful of phases to McGuigan, who collected the ball on the charge to race over and claim their second converted score.
Nothing, it seemed, was going right for the Chiefs. The line-out woes continued, whilst around the park elementary errors were stifling their play when they seemed set to strike.
Both sides emptied their benches in the final quarter to ensure the contest remained fiercely competitive. However, it would be the visitors who prospered when push came to shove.
With the Falcons in possession of the ball on their own 22, the Exeter eight merged as one to create a powerful force that buckled their rivals. Under pressure, they had no option but to go onto the retreat. Referee Christophe Ridley spotted this, rewarding the Chiefs with the penalty.
The natives may not have been happy with the award, but it mattered not to Simmonds, who stepped forward to deliver the knockout blow.
Falcons: M Brown (A Radwan 71), T Penny, G Wacokecoke, M Orlando, N Earle (W Montgomery 46); W Haydon-Wood, C Nordli-Kelemeti (J Hodgson 75); A Brocklebank, G McGuigan (J Blamire 63), T Davison (M Tampin 63); G Peterson, S Robinson; J Basham, C Collett, C Chick (capt). Replacements: (not used): C Cade, R Farrar, L Burrell
Tries - Haydon-Wood, McGuigan; Conversions - Haydon-Wood (2)
Red Card: Chick
Chiefs: J Hodge (F Cordero h/t); O Woodburn, I Whitten, T Hendrickson, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), S Maunder (J Maunder 67); A Hepburn (B Moon 60-75), J Innard (J Yeandle 60), P Schickerling (M Street 60); J Kirsten (L Pearson 42), D Jenkins (S Grondona 71); S Skinner, D Armand, R Capstick. Replacement: (not used): H Skinner.
Tries - Schickerling, Innard; Conversion - J Simmonds; Penalty - J Simmonds
Referee: C Ridley