Falcons 28 Chiefs 20
Newcastle Falcons 28
Exeter Chiefs 20
Mark Stevens at Kingston Park
Storm Eleanor has battered all parts of the UK this past week, but it was Exeter Chiefs who felt the full force of a determined Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park.
In the first Aviva Premiership fixture of the New Year, the reigning champions were simply ripped apart by a dominant first half display from Dean Richards’ side.
The in-form Falcons ran in tries through Sinoti Sinoti, Vereniki Goneva and Kyle Cooper as they paved the way for only their second-ever top flight win against the Devonians.
Although the Chiefs were much improved after the break, claiming three touchdowns of their own through Sam Simmonds, Olly Woodburn and Toby Salmon, they had simply left themselves with too much to do, crashing to only their third league defeat of the season, and failing for the first time in 33 games to pick up any kind of bonus point.
Having ended 2017 with a bang against Leicester Tigers, Baxter’s side - which showed ten changes from their last outing - arrived in the North East looking to build on that success and further cement their position at the summit of the table.
Standing in their way, however, were a Falcons outfit, who themselves were in a rich vein of form, having won their last five fixtures in all competitions.
The confidence in both camps was clear to see, but it was the home side who started brightly, taking the lead inside two minutes through Flood with a gift-wrapped penalty from their rivals.
Former Exeter player Josh Matavesi chipped in behind the Chiefs defence and although Nic White and Steenson were back to cover the threat, the latter was caught in two minds and as the Falcons flew towards him, he slung a hospital pass back inside to Phil Dollman. With little room to operate in, the Welshman was felled under his own posts and was swamped by a plethora of home defenders, who won the penalty that Flood slotted with ease.
It was hardly the start the Devonians who have envisaged, but they regrouped quickly and following a sustained spell of attacking pressure, they drew level when Steenson was able to kick a penalty of his own after Alec Hepburn had been caught high by Gary Graham deep inside his own 22.
With space limited and the physical battle unrelenting, the first quarter flew by in an instance with the scoreboard untouched.
However, the second quarter belonged solely to the Falcons, who regained their lead on 23 minutes. With the Chiefs in possession, hot work at the breakdown from Sean Robinson helped create turnover ball, Micky Young fed Rob Vickers, who in turn released Sinoti Sinoti with a pass that looked, lets say, forward to even the home one-eyed home supporter.
The Samoan flyer, though, still had plenty to do and his fancy footwork bamboozled opposite number James Short and he was able to race over in the left corner. Flood wasted little time in going for the conversion, ruling out the chance for the Chiefs to form any kind of protest over the score.
Three minutes later and the home side were celebrating once more with a second try. Again, they ruthlessly made the champions pay, as this time Goneva picked off Jack Yeandle’s intended pass wide to Woodburn. With an empty touchline to scamper down, the Fijian made no mistake as he cruised over for the score converted by Hodgson.
Somewhat shell-shocked, it was to get no easier for the Chiefs, who were guilty of committing too many unforced errors under pressure from the Falcons. However, as half time approached, Dean Richards’ men struck for a third try, scoring a try more reminiscent of that often done by Exeter to their top flight rivals.
Having driven deep into enemy territory, the hosts adopted a simple, yet effective, pick-and-go game, the fruits of which yielded a try for Cooper bang under the sticks. Hodgson administered the extras to give his side a 22-point cushion at the turn.
HALF TIME NEWCASTLE FALCONS 25 EXETER CHIEFS 3
No doubt warmed by a half time blast from Baxter and his fellow coaches, the Chiefs re-emerged into the baltic conditions determined to restore some pride from their afternoon in the North East.
Whatever was uttered within the visiting changing rooms, it clearly had some impact as the visitors re-emerged with a gusto that had been largely missing for much of the opening half.
Early possession enabled them to get on the front foot and when Simmonds caught the home side napping with a quickly taken free-kick, he propelled himself towards the try-line. Aided by one or two of his team-mates, he appeared to dot the ball down. Referee Andrew Jackson was initially unsure, but following a quick conflab with the TV match official, the score was awarded and the Travelling Tribe - many of whom had departed deepest Devon at 5am - at last had something to cheer about.
The score was just what the doctor ordered and as Baxter started to empty his bench, so the rhythm in their play started to improve. A dominance up front, particularly at scrum time, allowed them to not only gain vital field position, but painted a decent picture for the officials when push came to shove.
However, gifted a penalty by Matavesi for a no-arms tackle, the Chiefs could not capitalise from the resultant five-metre line-out. Skipper Yeandle arrowing his throw over the out stretched hand of Mitch Lees and the Falcons were able to clear the danger with relative ease.
Undeterred, the visitors continued to push forward in attack and having again positioned themselves within sight of the home line, this time with a five-metre scrum, they took their chance on this occasion when Woodburn showed quick feet and a sharp mind to squeeze his way over for the score just past the hour mark.
Now with the bit between their teeth, the reinvigorated Chiefs sensed they could yet salvage something from their lengthy trip. The introduction of Henry Slade into the Exeter midfield added some real zest, while the ever-willing Whitten and Sam Hill were doing their best to try and dent the home defences.
To their credit, the Falcons were holding firm, but with referee Jackson’s patience starting to tell with a mounting penalty count, so the Chiefs pressed once more. Using their pack to again provide the foundation, they worked the opening for Salmon to claim his maiden Premiership try, which this time Steenson converted with just over two minutes to play.
Up by five, the Falcons slowly trudged to the middle for the restart. Hodgson punted long and deep into the Chiefs 22, but as the visitors looked to run from deep in their quest to find a late sucker punch, it was they themselves who were pinged by Jackson for holding on in the tackle.
The indiscretion not only allowed Hodgson a shot at goal, but more importantly killed the remaining seconds of the match. The Newcastle goalkicker took all of his allotted time, before dispatching a sweet kick that dissected the posts at the South End.
It not only sealed victory for the Falcons but, crucially, it denied - for the first time this season - the Chiefs gleaning any kind of on-field reward. With their lead cut to just five points at the top, Baxter will need to recover his troops quickly ahead of two huge European encounters in the next fortnight.
Falcons: S Hammersley; V Goneva, C Harris, J Matavesi (J-P Socino 62), Sinoti Sinoti; T Flood (J Hodgson 26), M Young (S Takulua 68); R Vickers (S Lockwood 68), K Cooper, J Welsh (S Wilson 73); C Green, S Robinson (E Olmstead 43); W Welch (capt, S Lawson 47), G Graham (N Latu 30), M Wilson.
Tries - Sinoti Sinoti, Goneva, Cooper; Conversions - Hodgson (2); Penalties - Flood, Hodgson
Chiefs: P Dollman; J Short (H Slade 49), I Whitten, S Hill, O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White (W Chudley 49); A Hepburn (C Rimmer 47), J Yeandle (capt, E Taione 57), T Francis (G Holmes 47); M Lees, O Atkins (T Salmon 47); D Ewers (T Waldrom 54), M Kvesic, S Simmonds. Replacement (not used): J Simmonds.
Tries - S Simmonds, Woodburn, Salmon; Conversion - Steenson; Penalty - Steenson
Referee: A Jackson