Newcastle Falcons recorded their sixth victory in a row at Kingston Park Stadium on Sunday, taking the prize scalp of Aviva Premiership champions and league leaders Exeter Chiefs.
Establishing a 25-3 half-time lead, they had to draw on every inch of defensive resolve to close out the game against the country’s top side, a challenge they rose to despite the visitors throwing everything at them in a frantic second half.
Newcastle had enjoyed the ideal start to the game, stringing together a lengthy period of possession and coming away with three points when Toby Flood slotted over a simple penalty following Exeter’s failure to clear their lines under pressure.
The champions levelled through a Gareth Steenson penalty from similarly straightforward range on 11 minutes, Flood chipping and regathering as the Falcons searched for an answer to the Chiefs’ defensive line-speed.
That attack fizzled out despite Michael Young’s support play getting the Falcons into prime position, Newcastle fronting up well in defence as Exeter were left empty-handed after kicking a penalty to the right corner.
The Falcons found their attacking rhythm in spectacular fashion in a lightning spell which produced two tries in four minutes, the first a sublime solo effort from Sinoti Sinoti after a maul turnover saw the ball wide left to the Samoan winger, who stepped James Short and raced 60 metres for the score.
That was followed rapidly by a poacher’s special from Vereniki Goneva, the serial interception artist snaffling another score when he pouched Jack Yeandle’s attempted offload to race in from half-way.
Joel Hodgson converted from the right, the replacement fly-half following up with a penalty from 25 metres out as his side established an 18-3 lead on the half-hour.
A strong finish to the half saw them carry a 25-3 lead into the interval, kicking a lineout to the corner and setting up a pick-and-go opportunity which was expertly taken by hooker Kyle Cooper.
The question was whether the Falcons could continue their dominance during the second half, the Chiefs beginning the brighter and registering a try within four minutes of the resumption when Sam Simmonds ploughed over from a quickly-tapped free kick in the left corner.
Steenson’s conversion thudded back off the post as the Falcons’ lead stood at 17 points, Newcastle forced into a forward reshuffle when Will Welch’s departure saw hooker Cooper moved into the back row.
Nili Latu stole back ball near his own try-line when Exeter kicked a penalty to the left corner in search of a second try, the visitors enjoying the greater of territory and possession as Newcastle grew frustrated by some of the officiating.
The Chiefs narrowed the gap to 12 when messy ball from a five-metre scrum saw Olly Woodburn mop up the scraps for an unconverted score in the left corner, Kingston Park absolutely rocking as the assembled crowd of 7,174 roared on their side.
They rose to their feet six minutes from time when Hodgson’s aggressive jackal forced a crucial turnover to relieve a period of sustained Exeter attack in the Falcons’ 22, and the closing minutes were played out predominantly in Newcastle’s half as the champions found fifth gear.
Toby Salmon sent nerves racing when he scored from a pick-and-go with two minutes on the clock, but Newcastle removed any doubt when Hodgson’s last-minute penalty sealed the deal.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Vereniki Goneva, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Josh Matavesi (Juan Pablo Socino, 61), 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Toby Flood (Joel Hodgson, 24), 9 Michael Young (Sonatane Takulua, 68); 1 Rob Vickers (Sam Lockwood, 68), 2 Kyle Cooper, 3 Jon Welsh (Scott Wilson, 72), 4 Calum Green, 5 Sean Robinson (Evan Olmstead, 41), 6 Will Welch (captain, Scott Lawson, 47), 7 Gary Graham (Nili Latu, 30), 8 Mark Wilson.
Falcons scorers - Tries: Sinoti Sinoti, Vereniki Goneva, Kyle Cooper. Conversions: Joel Hodgson 2. Penalties: Toby Flood, Joel Hodgson 2.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Phil Dollman, 14 James Short (Henry Slade, 48), 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Sam Hill, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Gareth Steenson, 9 Nic White (Will Chudley, 48); 1 Alec Hepburn (Carl Rimmer, 49), 2 Jack Yeandle (captain, Elvis Taione, 57)), 3 Tomas Francis (Greg Holmes, 49), 4 Mitch Lees, 5 Ollie Atkins (Toby Salmon, 47), 6 Dave Ewers (Thomas Waldrom, 53), 7 Matt Kvesic, 8 Sam Simmonds.
Exeter scorers - Tries: Sam Simmonds, Olly Woodburn, Toby Salmon. Conversion: Gareth Steenson. Penalties: Gareth Steenson.
Referee: Andrew Jackson. Attendance: 7,174.
Hammersley, Goneva, Harris, Matavesi, Sinoti, Flood, Young, Vickers, Cooper, Welsh, Green, Robinson, Welch, Graham, Wilson
Replacements Lawson, Lockwood, Wilson, Olmstead, Latu, Takulua, Hodgson, Socino
Dollman, Short, Whitten, Hill, Woodburn, Steenson, White, Hepburn, Yeandle, Francis, Lees, Atkins, Ewers, Kvesic, Simmonds
Replacements Taione, Rimmer, Holmes, Salmon, Waldrom, Chudley, Slade, Simmonds
referee: Andrew Jackson
assistant: Hamish Smales
assistant: John Meredith
TMO: Stuart Terheege