Match preview: Newcastle Falcons v Exeter Chiefs

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Saturday 10 May 2014 – 3.15pm

Kingston Park, Newcastle

Aviva Premiership #22

After a week that has seen the Falcons secure Premiership safety and sign two Tuilagi brothers, we have the opportunity to avoid our lowest-ever points total in a Premiership season tomorrow, and will do so with a first league win over Exeter in the final game of the campaign, or equal it with a bonus point.

We currently have 22 points, one fewer than in 2010/11 when only points difference prevented relegation and sent Leeds down instead.

The Falcons are going for only a second final-day win since 2006 tomorrow, and only a sixth successful Premiership sign-off in sixteen attempts. Even in the Championship last season, in the last game of the regular season Bristol left Kingston Park with a win, our only defeat of the league season. We rarely have anything but pride to play for on the last day, indeed only in 2010/11 and 2011/12 have we still been in danger of relegation with one game left, and we often seem to see our season just peter out.

Last-day since 1998:

1997/98 Harlequins (A)               W44-20

1998/99 Saracens (A)                 L26-40

1999/00 Northampton (H)            L23-32

2000/01 Saracens (A)                 L29-34

2001/02 Northampton (A)            L19-24

2002/03 Bath (A)                        L12-24

2003/04 Rotherham (A)               W26-20

2004/05 London Irish (H)             W23-16

2005/06 Leeds (H)                      W54-19

2006/07 Bath (H)                        L12-20

2007/08 Worcester (A)                L10-51

2008/09 Harlequins (A)               L12-31

2009/10 Wasps (H)                     L21-25

2010/11 Bath (A)                        L12-42

2011/12 Wasps (A)                     W14-10

2012/13 Bristol (H) (Champ)        L14-19

The stand-out one there is obviously the first one – clinching the title with something to spare at the Stoop back in 1998. Good days.

This will be Exeter’s first trip to the North East since that unforgettable (for all the wrong reasons) day in January 2012, an afternoon that has been talked about a lot in recent months. A 10-16 defeat by the Chiefs in front of just 3,445 spectators at a desolate, despondent KP proved to be the last straw in the difficult Alan Tait era and saw the manager replaced with Gary Gold for the rest of the season.

Haydn Thomas had put Exeter in front with an early try before Ignacio Mieres made the score 0-10 at half-time with a 39th-minute penalty. I still remember Jimmy Gopperth kicking off after that penalty, sending the ball deep and Exeter kicking for touch under no pressure to take half-time. In one move, it summed up everything that was wrong with the Falcons at the time. Gopperth and Mieres exchanged penalties after the break, and in the last five minutes an Exeter drop-goal was cancelled out by Tim Swinson’s converted try that gave us a bonus point. There was little celebration of that try – just worries about where on Earth we were headed.

I think that, however bad things have got this season, we will hopefully never sink to those depths of despair again.

That was Exeter’s second win at KP since their promotion, and they have also won all three Premiership meetings between the sides at Sandy Park as well as a European game in December 2010. Our only victories over the Chiefs this century have came in 2010/11, at KP in the LV= Cup and up in Galashiels snow in the Challenge Cup. The Falcons starting scrum-half at Netherdale? Joel Hodgson.

This season Exeter will finish either eighth or ninth, sitting on 41 points at the moment just one behind fellow south-westerners Gloucester. No doubt such a league placing will be disappointing to Rob Baxter and co, following sixth last season and an incredible fifth in 2011/12, only the Chiefs’ second top flight season. Even their debut year saw the Devon side end in eighth spot. To have performed so strongly in their Premiership time is to Exeter’s huge credit.

It was all capped off with an LV= Cup win on their home ground in March, with Northampton vanquished 15-8 at Sandy Park through tries from Chris Whitehead and captain Dean Mumm, and five points from Henry Slade.

Exeter arrive in Newcastle on the back of two successive home defeats, 29-30 to Harlequins on Sunday and a massive 12-55, eight-try drubbing by Sale in April – the Sandy Park side’s record Premiership loss. In fact, in their five games since the cup triumph, Exeter have only one win, that being a 33-38 success at Worcester a month ago.

Away from home this season Exeter have beaten London Irish, Gloucester, Sale and Worcester in the Premiership, as well as Cardiff Blues in the final round of Heineken Cup matches and the Warriors by a massive 3-42 at Sixways in the LV= Cup group stage. The 19-22 victory at Bath in the LV= semi-final was a first victory at the Rec for the Chiefs in 36 years.

Gary Strain and Ian Nagle make what could be their only Newcastle starts tomorrow, both presumably playing for contracts, while Oliver Tomaszczyk also comes into the starting lineup. James Fitzpatrick starts on his final matchday as a Falcon and Joel Hodgson continues his so-far promising half-back partnership with Mike Blair.

Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Noah Cato, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 James Fitzpatrick, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Mike Blair, 1 Gary Strain, 2 Scott Lawson, 3 Oliver Tomaszczyk, 4 Ian Nagle, 5 Dom Barrow, 6 Richard Mayhew, 7 Will Welch (c), 8 Mark Wilson

Replacements: 16 George McGuigan, 17 Kieran Brookes, 18 Scott Wilson, 19 Scott MacLeod, 20 Andy Saull, 21 Warren Fury, 22 Phil Godman, 23 Lee Smith

Exeter team:

15 Phil Dollman, 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Sam Hill, 11 Matt Jess, 10 Henry Slade, 9 Dave Lewis, 1 Ben Moon, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Hoani Tui, 4 Dean Mumm (c), 5 Damian Welch, 6 Ben White, 7 James Scaysbrook, 8 Kai Horstmann.

Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Carl Rimmer, 18 Alex Brown, 19 James Phillips, 20 Tom Johnson, 21 Haydn Thomas, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Tom James.

After a tense, frustrating and sometimes quite annoying season, the pressure is now off and even though the BBC is predicting rain for Saturday afternoon, it should be mild so hopefully we can get a good game and that badly-needed win to give fans some optimism for 2014/15.

Come on!

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

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