One or two other sides are finishing the regular season strongly but they still have to loosen the iron grip of last season’s champions Exeter. Roared on by the first home fans to populate Sandy Park for five months the rampant Chiefs proved far too much for their under-strength visitors and are now just three points behind leaders Bristol with two rounds to play.
The Chiefs also equalled their record tally for a Premiership wedstryd, matching the 74 points rattled up against London Welsh six years ago, with man-of-the-match Henry Slade and Jacques Vermeulen collecting two tries apiece. It has not been the greatest of months for Slade, unluckily omitted from the British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa, but the gifted centre enjoyed himself here in front of the watching England coach, Eddie Jones.
With another pair of Lions, Jonny Hill and Stuart Hogg, given mere cameo roles off the bench and Jonny Gray not involved at all, the ominous message for their future opponents is that Exeter still have plenty left ahead of this season’s lengthy run-in. They finished with 12 tries in total and Dean Richards, the Falcons’ director of rugby, believes they will take some stopping in June. “I said before the game they’re my tip to win the Premiership title and I still stand by that,” said Richards, still hopeful his team can finish as high as eighth. “They’re a top team.”
Along with many thousands of other Bank Holiday travellers Newcastle always knew this might not be the simplest weekend to visit Devon. If the traffic jams on the neighbouring M5 on Saturday were nightmarish they remain a relative joy compared to attempting to stop the power-stacked Chiefs’ forward juggernaut from five metres out.
If any club has been missing their vocal congregation, furthermore, it has been the Chiefs who had to celebrate both their successes last season behind closed doors. In that context the presence of 3,300 supporters on a gorgeous sunny day was as close to perfection for the locals as the ongoing Covid restrictions allow.
From the moment Sam Skinner crashed over from close range in the third minute there was barely any respite for a Falcons side who blooded four Premiership debutants and left with just a solitary Toby Flood penalty to show for their 740-mile round trip. The pick of the Chiefs’ dozen tries was the last, a beautiful flick from Slade sending the speedy Tom O’Flaherty diving into the left corner and prompting high praise for the former from his head coach, Ali Hepher. “Even when the pressure is on he’s got one of the highest skillsets in world rugby,” said Hepher.
“His ability to play the ball, the space and what’s in front of him is almost second to none and he defends exceptionally well on top of that. We’re chuffed to have him and he performed fantastically well today.”
With the grounds increasingly firm and fast, Slade’s ability to make others look good around him also dovetails perfectly with Exeter’s forward grunt. The Chiefs had five tries in the bank before half-time and topped 70 points despite disallowed tries for the relentless Sam Simmonds and the under-rated Jack Maunder and Joe Simmonds missing five conversions.
While the latest injury absence of Jack Nowell is also less than ideal – the management say he is “pushing hard” to be back for the play-offs – Exeter can still conjure up plenty of firepower out wide in Alex Cuthbert and the impressively consistent O’Flaherty. The latter is proving an increasingly valuable all-rounder, knocking Alex Tait back in the tackle before poaching a turnover seconds later as well as regularly leading the Chiefs’ kick chase.
With the newly bleach-blond Hogg also in effervescent mood after replacing Cuthbert, the only faint clouds on the Chiefs horizon were the premature departures of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tomas Francis and Vermeulen. Cowan-Dickie was withdrawn at half-time with a sore back – Hepher suggested it was merely a precaution – while his fellow forwards needed treatment for hip and upper leg knocks respectively. Exeter may yet have to win their final two regular season games against Northampton and Sale to cement a home semi-final draw but, regardless of who they play, the force is currently with them.