Endeavour, spirit and commitment were not enough for Newcastle Falcons to pick up at least a losing bonus-point against Exeter Chiefs in the Aviva Premiership at Sandy Park
Throwing everything they had at Exeter’s rear-guard in the closing stages, the Falcons were unable to get the breakthrough that they most certainly craved, making this fortnight a crucial period for Dean Richards’ men.
Hosting London Wasps on Friday 27 December and Sale Sharks on Friday 3 January respectively, the matches now increase in magnitude as the Falcons look get back to winning ways in the league.
Making the longest trip out of any other professional sports team in England this season, Sandy Park provided a cauldron of atmosphere. Brass band bashing out the traditional festive carols, the scene was set for the pre-Christmas clash in Devon.
The Falcons created the first opening five minutes into the contest when a quick tap penalty from Mike Blair unleashed the returning Danny Barnes on the far side. Tackled 25 metres from Exeter’s try line, the ball was switched to Noah Cato on the near side but the winger was unable to gather the ball with the try line firmly in his sights.
Gareth Steenson gave the Chiefs the early advantage on 11 minutes with a penalty after a period of sustained pressure from the hosts. Drive after drive Exeter looked to punch holes in Newcastle’s defensive line with the visitors holding their own until referee Greg Garner brought play back for an earlier penalty.
Steenson doubled his tally moments later, a carbon copy of his previous effort after Adam Powell was penalised for a debatable high tackle.
Newcastle began to get a foothold of the game and enjoyed a period of sustained pressure as they went in search of some points. A Falcons lineout five metres out almost produced the first try of the game thanks to an effective driving maul. Held up just short, the ball was swung wide to Cato, who was thwarted before he could get the offload away to Alex Tait on the overlap.
With a series of chances going begging for the Falcons, the Chiefs made them pay as they extended their lead through a Steenson penalty, his third of the afternoon. Jack Nowell kicked down field and was taken out by the industrious Barnes, with the penalty awarded from where the ball had landed. Barnes arguably stood his ground but the penalty was awarded nonetheless and the Chiefs No.10 did the rest.
With the break looming large the Falcons did not want the half to end as they worked through the phases looking to make their pressure count. Hit-ups from Kieran Brookes, Richard Mayhew and Fraser McKenzie got the Falcons on the front foot with the travelling army of Falcons supporters spurring their team on behind the goal. Exeter, to their credit forced the Falcons back, but Mr Garner awarded the northeasterners a penalty, and with the last kick of the half Phil Godman judged the strong wind to perfection to land the three points to go into the interval just 9-3 behind.
The Falcons made a far from ideal start to the second period when they conceded a penalty within Steenson range, but his effort fell short in the wind and Tait was able to clear.
On 50 minutes Exeter finally unhinged Newcastle’s backline, gathering clean ball at a lineout close to the Falcons’ line before scum-half Hadyn Thomas scooted in for an easy score. Steenson added the extras for a 16-3 advantage.
Exeter continued to give the ball air as they eyed further scores, however the Falcons demonstrated their steely defensive resistance which they have prided themselves on this campaign.
Chasing the game with the wind behind them, the Falcons were forced to chance their arm in attack with some expansive rugby.
Winger Ryan Shortland gave the Falcons a glimmer of hope when he broke through the middle to feed the onrushing Andy Saull on the overlap, but a desperate scrambling Chiefs defence denied the former England Saxon.
Barnes, who was having a solid game on his return from injury, underlined his attacking intent with a flurry of runs, but with time running out the chances went rye and the Falcons left the Devon coast with nothing to show for their efforts.
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Arscott, Nowell, Whitten, Hill, James, Steenson, Thomas, Moon, Yeandle, Tui, Mumm, Welch, Ewers, White, Horstmann
Replacements Whitehead, Sturgess, Brown, Hanks, Armand, Chudley, Slade, Vainikolo
Tait, Cato, Barnes, Powell, Shortland, Godman, Blair, Vickers, Lawson, Brookes, Del Fava, McKenzie, Mayhew, Saull, Hogg
Replacements McGuigan, Shiels, Wilson, Tomes, Welch, Fury, Clegg, Helleur
referee: Greg Garner