Newcastle Falcons suffered Anglo-Welsh Cup heartache when a Joe Simmonds penalty three minutes from time deprived them a place in the final and a first ever victory at Sandy Park.
The Falcons fell behind as early as the fourth minute when scrum-half Stu Townsend scampered down the left side to score, Simmonds converting.
Newcastle answered back on 12 minutes when an early tackle following a Maxime Mermoz run handed Toby Flood a penalty 35 metres out in front, one the former England fly-half sent between the uprights with an assured strike despite the cross-wind.
Exeter’s attempt to find a second try just before the quarter mark fell flat when Falcons hooker Kyle Cooper snaffled a turnover penalty at ruck time near his own try line, the Chiefs turning to the airwaves in hoisting a box kick which was knocked on by Vereniki Goneva on the Newcastle 22.
Josh Matavesi’s choke tackle earned the Falcons a further defensive reprieve as the Devonians mounted another foray into the green and silver half, an attritional contest seeing little in the way of clear try-scoring opportunities.
At least not until the 26th minute, when some fine ruck work from Sean Robinson on halfway won a penalty which was kicked to the left corner, Kyle Cooper mauling his way over a try, converted by Flood for a three-point lead.
It got even better on 32 minutes when a midfield linebreak from Nili Latu saw the No 8 surging from halfway to the Exeter 22, fellow Tongan Sonatane Takulua whipping the ball left for Ally Hog, who floated a delightful scoring pass inside to Simon Hammersley.
Flood negotiated a troublesome wind to curl the conversion over, Newcastle taking a 17-7 lead into the interval, the Chiefs biting back with the first score of the second half when a sustained period of pick-and-go near the goalposts saw the ball flung right for Joe Simmonds to zip over.
The fly-half converted his own score to narrow the hosts’ deficit to three points going into the closing half-hour, Exeter mounting concerted pressure on a Newcastle side whose defensive organisation and discipline was being tested to the full.
Simmonds levelled proceedings going into the last 14 minutes with a well-struck penalty from the left, Flood firing wide with a long-range penalty into the wind as they tried to chisel out a victory seven minutes from time.
But it was to be Exeter’s day when Simmonds stepped up to bisect the uprights on 77 minutes, his side awarded a penalty on the Falcons’ 22 just left of centre.
Joel Hodgson had a last-minute chance to level it but missed by a whisker, a bitter blow to a gallant Falcons team who will now gird their loins for The Big One at St James’ Park on March 24.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Vereniki Goneva, 13 Maxime Mermoz (Chris Harris, 66), 12 Josh Matavesi, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Toby Flood (Joel Hodgson, 75), 9 Sonatane Takulua (Michael Young, 53); 1 Sam Lockwood (Rob Vickers, 53), 2 Kyle Cooper (Santiago Socino, 69), 3 Jon Welsh (Scott Wilson, 36), 4 Will Witty, 5 Sean Robinson, 6 Ally Hogg, 7 Will Welch (captain), 8 Nili Latu.
Scorers - Tries: Kyle Cooper, Simon Hammersley. Conversions: Toby Flood 2. Penalties: Toby Flood.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Santiago Cordero, 14 Tom O’Flaherty, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 James Short, 10 Joe Simmonds, 9 Stu Townsend (Will Chudley, 61); 1 Moray Low, 2 Jack Innard (Paul Davis, 73), 3 Greg Holmes, 4 Mitch Lees, 5 Wilhelm Van Der Sluys (Toby Salmon, 54), 6 Dave Dennis (captain, Kai Horstmann, 69), 7 Julian Salvi, 8 Matt Kvesic.
Scorers - Tries: Stu Townsend, Joe Simmonds. Conversions: Joe Simmonds 2. Penalties: Joe Simmonds 2.
Referee: Karl Dickson.