Falcons 9 Chiefs 15
Newcastle Falcons 9
Exeter Chiefs 15
Mark Stevens at Kingston Park
The game was as grim as the weather, but in the grand scheme of things it mattered not to the Exeter Chiefs.
Rob Baxter’s side cut the gap on Gallagher Premiership leaders Bristol Bears to just two points with this ‘workmanlike’ victory over Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park.
Tries from Sam Simmonds and Alex Cuthbert provided the highlights in a snowy North East for the defending champions, whose remaining points came courtesy of the boot of fly-half Joe Simmonds.
The Falcons countered with three penalties from Joel Hodgson, but that is all they could muster against a resolute Chiefs defence in which young forward Richard Capstick was the pick of the bunch.
On the road for a second successive week, Baxter stuck largely with the same side that had won at Worcester Warriors eight days earlier. Will Witty came into the pack to face his former club, while young prop Marcus Street was afforded a start at tight-head.
Behind them, Facundo Cordero and Cuthbert were also added to the playing mix, the latter making his first appearance since October following a serious calf injury.
The Falcons, undone at London Irish in Round Seven, made three changes in personnel, drafting in flanker John Hardie for his first start of the season, while Brett Connon and George Wacokecoke were added to the back division.
On a bitingly cold afternoon in the Toon, both sides tore into each other from the outset. The respective forwards set the tone with some bone-crunching collisions, all of which were being met by some pretty robust defensive duties.
It was, however, the Falcons who struck first, opening the scoring on six minutes when Hodgson was able to punish Capstick’s not release at the tackle area with a pretty routine penalty.
Not exactly the start the Chiefs would have envisaged, the visitors slowly started to settle into proceedings and with their first meaningful piece of possession they started to use their juggernaut pack to cause some damage.
Exeter’s eight dented their way to within sniffing distance of the home try-line, only for referee Anthony Woodthorpe to adjudge they had been held up over the whitewash by some scramble defence from the Falcons.
Undeterred, the Chiefs set themselves at the resultant five-metre scrum, the fruits of which saw England international Sam Simmonds dart off the base and towards the line. The all-action No.8 used his speed and power to brush aside the attentions of the flailing Falcons defence to claim his ninth league try of the campaign.
Younger brother Joe obliged with a testing touchline conversion to ensure maximum reward for the Devonians.
It was a slender advantage for the visitors who, just minutes later, allowed their rivals to cut the deficit with a second Hodgson penalty, the full-back landing the kick after hooker George McGuigan - playing his 100th Premiership game - was caught late off the ball by Witty.
Former Falcon Witty was certainly at the heart of the action and he came within a whisker of adding a second Chiefs try just before the half-hour mark. Slick handling from Joe Simmonds, Ollie Devoto and Cuthbert helped to release the lock down the right flank, but as he closed in on the try-line, he was bundled into touch with a last-gasp tackle.
That chance may have gone, but when the Chiefs pressed again, this time they were rewarded when Joe Simmonds slotted a penalty after the home side had infringed at a ruck in front of their own posts.
Again, the Falcons refused to go quietly and with the clock in the red at the end of the first half, Dean Richards’ side turned the Chiefs over on their own scrum to win a penalty deep inside the Exeter 22.
Twice they tried to use a close-range line-out to create their attacking platform, but twice they were repelled by some ferocious defending from the Chiefs.
HALF TIME: NEWCASTLE FALCONS 6 EXETER CHIEFS 10
With the home side forced into change at the interval, McGuigan and winger Ben Stevenson both exited due to injuries, it was the Chiefs who resumed proceedings on the front foot.
Winger Tom O’Flaherty led the charge for the Chiefs, who again positioned themselves nicely within strike range, only to cough up a soft penalty just inches from the Falcons line.
The Chiefs, though, were bossing territory and possession and with the Falcons under pressure to clear their lines, it was great work from Scotland international Sam Skinner, charging down a box-kick clearance from Louis Schreuder, that provided the visitors with the possession they needed for their second try.
Skinner’s pressure saw him regather the ball, before it was work masterfully from left wing to the right to Cuthbert. Still with plenty to do, the Wales and British Lions winger turned on the after burners, scorching down the flank and rounding Hodgson to dot down in the corner.
It was a special moment for the 30-year-old, who has endured a torrid past year due to two long-standing injuries. On this showing, though, his return could yet provide the Chiefs with a deadly weapon in their attacking arsenal.
Again, the Falcons refused to go quietly and when Hodgson again cut the scoreline with a third penalty, it set up a somewhat frantic final quarter to the match.
Thankfully, the Chiefs dug deep under some late pressure, eventually positioning themselves back down in the Falcons half, where they miserly denied their counterparts of possession in the dying embers.
In truth, it was far from a classic but - as Baxter was quick to stress post-game - it’s days like this that count further down the line, when the Chiefs will be chasing even greater reward.
Newcastle Falcons: J Hodgson; G Wacokecoke, M Orlando, G Owen, B Stevenson (C Vuna 40); B Connon (A Tait 66), L Schreuder (S Stuart 57); T Davison (K Cooper 61), G McGuigan (J Blamier 40), L Mulipola (M Tampin 72); G Peterson, M Fuser (D Barry 66); S Robinson (capt), J Hardie (C Collett 66), P van der Walt.
Penalties - Hodgson (3)
Exeter Chiefs: F Cordero (H Skinner 63); A Cuthbert, I Whitten, O Devoto, T O'Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Townsend 72); A Hepburn, J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 72), M Street; W Witty (D Armand 53), S Skinner; D Ewers, R Capstick (S Lonsdale 73), S Simmonds. Replacements (not used): J Kenny, M Van Dyk, T Hendrickson.
Tries - S Simmonds, Cuthbert; Conversion - J Simmonds; Penalty - J Simmonds
Referee: A Woodthorpe