The Exeter Chiefs won out 32-17 over Newcastle Falcons under clear blue skies at Sandy Park, but it wasn’t all sunshine for the home team as they laboured a bonus point victory against a surprisingly resolute team from the North-East.
Both sides came into the game with pressure to win, but for very different reasons. For the Chiefs it was a matter of chasing league leader Saracens, and attempting to cement their place in the top four in time for the playoffs. For the Falcons, a victory would quell any fears of relegation, as they find themselves precariously placed eight points ahead of bottom-placed London Irish.
Coach Rob Baxter made seven changes to the line up from the side that narrowly lost to Leicester last week, including the reintroduction of England international Henry Slade to the squad, after he returned from a broken leg and ankle ligament damage that has seen him out since December.
Initially, incisive play around the breakdown from Exeter began to pressure Newcastle, with strong runs from Geoff Parling amongst others. Points would come soon enough when Tongan international Nili Latu deliberately knocked down a pass intended for Olly Woodburn right in front of the posts. Gareth Steenson duly took the three points.
The next great chance came when captain Jack Yeandle broke through Newcastle’s defence with a cutting run, finding himself in behind. Yeandle had the support of Don Armand on his right shoulder, but elected not use him and was subsequently swamped by Falcons players, knocking the ball on in the process. This was the first of many chances Exeter had that were foiled by a combination of dogged defending by the Falcons and the inability of the Chiefs to do the simple things effectively.
Falcons may not have had much of the ball, but they looked like a side who weren’t going down easily, as excellent counter-rucking from the forwards gave referee Craig Maxwell-Keys no choice but to award a penalty for holding on just inside the Chiefs’ half. However, the returning Mike Delaney failed to capitalise on this chance, skewing his kick wide of the uprights. This was a welcome break for the visiting team as the Chiefs looked threatening throughout and spent the majority of their time in Falcon’s half, albeit to little avail.
A brilliant step and offload to Sam Hill by the impressive Slade led Exeter to within ten metres out. The next few passages of play saw Falcons concede several penalties deep in their own half. Each time Chiefs opted to kick for the corner and each time the attack was spoiled by loose passing, knock ons, or strong defending by the Falcons.
28 minutes in and Falcons got their second opportunity of the half, with Delaney taking his second shot at goal and levelling the scores at 3-3.
Further pressing from the Chiefs for the remainder of the half all culminated in the same outcome, more knock ons and no doubt the Chiefs went into halftime unsatisfied with their performance.
Five minutes into the second half, following some early Falcons attacks, Armand intercepted and broke through, but was brought down about ten metres from the line, unable to get the pass to the hands on the oncoming Woodburn. Newcastle’s Chris Harris picked up the ball and horrendously scuffed the clearance kick which landed straight into the hands of Thomas Waldrom, who ran in for an easy try from five metres out. Steenson converted to put the hosts ahead once more, but it was to be short-lived.
The balance was restored moments later after the Chiefs’ defence were seemingly missing as scrum-half Sonatane Takulua darted from the back of maul ten metres out and over the try line. Delany then added on the two after points
Chiefs started to play some better rugby, and some excellent link up and support play culminated in a try for Phil Dollman, which Steenson converted to see him become the Chiefs’ all-time leading league points scorer, eclipsing club legend Tony Yapp.
Once again, however, the lead was to be short-lived as a loose pass from the back of the scrum by Waldrom was intercepted by Latu, who then began to fly towards the line. He was brought down and Newcastle began to build, exhibiting great patience in the face of slow ball. Falcons showed great determination, putting in a series of pick and drives that was rewarded a few phases later as Latu surged over the line.
Delany restored equilibrium with his conversion and there was perhaps belief from the visitors they could snatch something from the game, that was largely snuffed out by a trip to the bin for captain Will Welch, who was penalised for bringing down a driving maul deep in his own half.
Chiefs took this opportunity to mount the pressure, and a penalty kick taken by Steenson saw the score head to 20-17 with just over 10 minutes to go.
A well-placed kick from the fly-half a few minutes later, and the subsequent attempt to run the ball out by the Falcons defence led to a line out metres from Newcastle’s try line. Chiefs could sense another try and the possibility to put any fears of a loss to rest and following a series of drives from the back of the lineout, the ball was spread wide to man of the match Hill who ran over to make the scores 25-17.
Emboldened by their substitutions and facing a weary Falcons side, Exeter gained a bonus point from some impressive narrow play around the fringes of rucks, which included a break from the imperious Parling and Waldrom. A drive to under the posts rounded off the game in style, with a try for substitute Elvis Taione. The consequent conversion saw to the game ending 32-17.
Despite winning the maximum number of points from this tough encounter against a stubborn Newcastle defence, the Chiefs will undoubtedly need to make fewer errors against Northampton next Sunday in order to cement their playoff ambitions.