Yellow cards cost Newcastle against Exeter precision
It is a mark of Newcastle Falcons’ rising aspirations that Dean Richards, their director of rugby, can view a bonus point at Sandy Park with the type of expression he would normally reserve for an all-vegan menu.
Exeter Chiefs are unbeaten on home soil in 12 months and although Newcastle were never in a real position to win the game, they did match the champions with four tries apiece.
The difference was one of precision. Gareth Steenson, the arch-surveyor of this peculiar microclimate, kicked all his shots at goal while Newcastle’s Juan Pablo Socino and DTH van Der Merwe were both yellow-carded at crucial junctures in the second half.
There was concern for Jack Nowell, who departed in the 20th minute with blood flowing from a cut below his left eye which the Exeter and England wing sustained attempting to tackle Chris Harris. He was taken to hospital last night, but if Eddie Jones, the England head coach, faces a nervous wait on his condition he would have received a far more positive report on No8 Sam Simmonds.
With Billy Vunipola ruled out of the autumn internationals and Nathan Hughes nursing a dead leg, No8 is fast becoming a problem position.
Simmonds is in the mould of neither man, weighing at least two stones less. Yet, what he lacks in size he makes up for in speed, as he demonstrated in scoring a glorious individual try in which he burnt Van Der Merwe, a wing, on the outside.
That takes his tally to five tries in five games, and he must surely be on the radar of the England head coach. “He is going well, there’s no denying that,” Rob Hunter, the Exeter forwards coach, said. “He is doing the simple things really well, and he is enjoying himself, which is a key factor.
“Every time he touches the ball, you feel everyone gasp waiting to see what he does.”
Neither team were at their sparkling best, but when it mattered, Exeter found a way to keep Newcastle at arm’s length and their bonus-point victory now lifts to them the top of the table.
That was the position that Newcastle occupied last week, but just to be in the top four heading into the European round of fixtures is a glorious return for a team with one of the smallest budgets – even if Richards struggled to see it that way.
“We stressed ourselves out by not sticking to script and going off-piste,” he said. “Had we not done that, we probably would not have gone down to 14 men twice.
“We are improving week in, week out, but it was almost a case of three steps forward and one back today. I would have taken four wins out of six, but the boys are frustrated by the performance today.
“I am happy, but there is far more to do and a lot of hard work to put in.”
There was an immediate demonstration of Newcastle’s new-found confidence when they turned down a shot at goal for a kick to the corner.
Doing a more than passable impression of the Chiefs, Newcastle patiently recycled possession, but Socino was adjudged to have knocked on in the process of crashing over the line.
The Chiefs’ style is often copied but rarely bettered as they set about showing Newcastle exactly how to finish those type of opportunities.
Once Sam Skinner claimed a closerange line-out, the Chiefs were in business. Nic White made the initial snipe, and several phases later, the Australia scrum-half found the opening he needed for a close-range try. Steenson converted and added a penalty to put the Chiefs 10-0 ahead.
Of course, there is more to Exeter than pick and goes. Their second score was a
simple plan, wonderfully executed. White was fed with line-out ball off the top and ex- changed passes with Simmonds before crabbing sideways until Lachie Turner appeared roaring down the blindside. However, it was their third try that will feature most prominently on the highlights packages. Exeter constructed an overlap on the left, where Simmonds left Van Der Merwe for dead. With Olly Woodburn outside him, the No8 instead opted to step inside past Sonatane Takulua and Alex Tait and under the posts.
Newcastle were already on the scoreboard by that point, albeit with a helping hand from Trevor Fisher, the television match official.
This time their policy of kicking to the corner paid dividends as a maul was formed. Will Welch, the impressive captain, tried to force his way over from inches. Replays seemed to show that the ball was held up by a stray leg, but Fisher thought otherwise.
Simmonds’s try on 35 minutes restored Exeter’s advantage, but just as the hosts were visualising their halftime oranges, Newcastle grabbed a second score.
White’s loose box-kick was seized upon by flanker Mark Wilson. He immediately spotted numbers out wide, and his long pass allowed Vereniki Goneva to put Socino away. Takulua, however, missed his second straight conversion to leave Newcastle 24-10 adrift at the break.
Any pats on the back that Socino received for his try would have been instantly rescinded when he was sin-binned early in the second half for leading with his elbow. Steenson kicked the resulting penalty, but Exeter failed to capitalise further upon their man advantage.
With their numbers restored and flyhalf Toby Flood joining the fray for his second debut at the club, Newcastle scored their third try approaching the hour mark. Flood was involved in the build-up, but the credit belongs exclusively to full-back Alex Tait for his wonderful arcing run.
The gap was down to 10 points and the first signs of nerves started appearing around Sandy Park. They were quickly settled as Exeter went back to what they do best. The outstanding Don Armand claimed a line-out and the maul started motoring at a rate of knots. Although Van Der Merwe managed to hold the ball up, he did so by entering the maul at the side, resulting in a penalty try and a yellow card. The game lost its shape after that, but Goneva registered Newcastle’s bonus point with four minutes left after Exeter forgot to defend the blind side of a scrum.
True grip: Exeter’s Henry Slade holds off Nili Latu of Newcastle