Newcastle Falcons’ remarkable Aviva Premiership campaign ended at the semi-final stage on Saturday as champions Exeter Chiefs ran out convincing winners.
The champions had led 16-0 at the interval after an opening half in which they hogged possession, the Falcons forced into energy-sapping periods of defensive duty and failing to find any cohesion with what scraps of ball they had.
The visitors began the game with patience and aggression evident in their defence, absorbing five minutes of solid Exeter ball-in-hand before winning a relieving penalty on their own 22.
An early line-out steal showed signs of promise, but it was the Chiefs who opened the scoring on 15 minutes when fly-half Joe Simmonds sent over a simple penalty from in front of the posts.
Toby Flood probed a half-gap around half-way as the visitors enjoyed some much-needed possession, but the champions doubled their lead on 24 minutes when Simmonds sent over a second penalty from 25 metres out for a high tackle.
The fly-half chipped another third between the posts on the half-hour when Evan Olmstead was sin-binned for playing the scrum-half, Exeter dominating possession in an energy-sapping start for Dean Richards’ men.
The visitors’ task became an even greater one in the last minute of the opening half when a flowing handling move freed Lachie Turner down the right, play worked infield from where scrum-half Nic White scooted over from the fringes of a close-range ruck, his try converted by Simmonds for a 16-0 half-time lead.
Even with the odds stacked so heavily against them the man in green and silver came out firing for the second half, running the ball into the wind and thwarting the champions when they tried and failed to profit from a lineout in the right corner.
But they conceded the first points of the half when Simmonds slotted his fourth penalty, bisecting the posts from 30 metres out after a ruck infringement, and quickly following it up with his fifth from similar range.
A quadruple substitution seemed to breathe fresh life into Newcastle’s attack, and it was one of the new men who got the Falcons off the mark when Alex Tait scored from a wonderful short line off Toby Flood.
That left a 17-point mountain to climb with 23 minutes remaining, but that margin drifted away from them quickly after when a short-side attack down the left saw Exeter scrum-half White feeding Olly Woodburn for a try in the left corner.
The video referee denied the champions a third try when they claimed to have burrowed over from the fringes of a ruck down the right, and then chalked off Tait’s claims on a second try when the replacement knocked on in the act of scoring from a Flood cross-kick to the right corner.
Don Armand scored for Exeter with the very last play, summing up a frustrating day for the visitors which could still not detract from a remarkable season.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Simon Hammersley (Alex Tait, 56), 14 Vereniki Goneva, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Josh Matavesi (Juan Pablo Socino, 56), 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Michael Young (Sonatane Takulua, 50); 1 Sam Lockwood (Rob Vickers, 50), 2 Kyle Cooper (Santiago Socino, 50), 3 Scott Wilson (David Wilson, 29), 4 Calum Green (Will Witty, 64), 5 Evan Olmstead, 6 Mark Wilson (captain), 7 Gary Graham, 8 Ally Hogg (Nili Latu, 50).
Falcons scorers – Tries: Alex Tait. Conversions: . Penalties: .
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade (Ian Whitten, 64), 12 Sam Hill, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Joe Simmonds (Gareth Steenson, 67), 9 Nic White (Stu Townsend, 61); 1 Alec Hepburn (Ben Moon, 56), 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (Jack Yeandle, 61), 3 Tomas Francis (Greg Holmes, 56), 4 Mitch Lees (Sam Skinner, 56), 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Dave Ewers, 7 Don Armand (captain), 8 Sam Simmonds (Thomas Waldrom, 64).
Scorers - Tries: Nic White, Olly Woodburn, Don Armand. Conversions: Joe Simmonds 2, Gareth Steenson. Penalties: Joe Simmonds 5.
Referee: Matthew Carley. Attendance: 12,772.
Turner, Nowell, Slade, Hill, Woodburn, Simmonds, White, Hepburn, Cowan-Dickie, Francis, Lees, Hill, Ewers, Armand, Simmonds
Replacements Yeandle, Moon, Holmes, Skinner, Waldrom, Townsend, Steenson, Whitten
Hammersley, Goneva, Harris, Matavesi, Sinoti, Flood, Young, Lockwood, Cooper, Wilson, Green, Olmstead, Wilson, Graham, Hogg
Replacements Socino, Vickers, Wilson, Witty, Latu, Takulua, Socino, Tait
referee: Matthew Carley
assistant: Tom Foley
assistant: Anthony Woodthorpe
TMO: Stuart Terheege