With so much attention lavished on Newcastle Falcons players and coaches in recent weeks it would be easy to forget it is their opponents Exeter Chiefs who will kick off Saturday’s second Premiership semi-final as defending champions and favourites.
Wednesday night saw the latest outpouring of gushing praise for Newcastle, following a stellar season which saw them finish the regular season fourth in the table, when director of rugby Dean Richards was named coach of the year and Vereneki Goneva the league’s outstanding player.
No-one would begrudge those accolades, but Falcons will face perhaps their biggest hurdle of what has so far been a remarkable season when they travel to Sandy Park for a knock-out encounter against a team which, let’s not forget, finished 22 points ahead of them in the regular season.
Rob Baxter’s men have been imperious in the league, finishing top of the pile eight points clear of nearest rivals Saracens and losing just once at Sandy Park in the league all season. The smart money is on them progressing to their third successive final at Twickenham.
“Newcastle have had a very good season and there’s a lot of talk around them,” said Exeter No 8 Sam Simmonds, the Aviva Premiership’s young player of the season. “But we’re looking inwards and it’s all about running out at Sandy Park and performing as we have done all season.
“We always go about our work quietly. It’s semi-final rugby and they deserve to be there over the course of the season. But if you look at us, we finished joint top last year and backed it up this year by finishing top of the pile again.
“We’ll probably go into the game favourites but we’ll put that to one side. Just because we came top in the regular season we’ve still got a job to do on the weekend.
“We’re not just happy with winning last year. We made it quite clear at the start of the season that we want to kick on and become champions again. We’re not happy with just finishing top in the regular season.
“We want to win the whole competition again. There’s no point having a great 22 rounds of regular season and then letting it all go to waste in the knock-out stages. We’ve got our sights firmly set on performing against Newcastle.”
Newcastle’s biggest threat will be posed by their hugely powerful wing duo of Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti. The respective Fiji and Samoa internationals have combined to superb effect all season and will be a handful for Exeter’s young English wingers Jack Nowell and Olly Woodburn.
“Goneva is an outstanding player but we don’t have special plans for him,” said Simmonds. “We know the threats Newcastle can bring but it’s about how we defend as a team and how we play the game. We can’t be too worried about what the likes of Goneva and Sinoti are going to do. If you’re worried about that then they’re going to walk all over you. If we defend as we have all season then hopefully we’ll keep them quiet.
“With Nowellsy and Woody we know when they get the ball we’re going to be going forward. It’s nice to have that calibre of player in the team. They’ll have a tough job against Goneva and Sinoti but those boys have been class all season. We’re pretty happy with our wingers as well.”
With Simmonds resting a “couple of small niggles” in Exeter’s final regular game against Harlequins, it was left to his younger brother Joe to uphold the family’s good name with an exceptional display at fly-half as his side crushed the home side 41-17 with something to spare.
The young Simmonds brothers have been keeping veterans Gareth Steenson and Thomas ‘Tank’ Waldrom on the bench but know they can’t let their performances slip at the business end of the season.
“We know we don’t own those shirts and if we don’t do well then Steeno and Tank will happily slip into our roles,” said Sam. “It spurs on both parties. It brings the best out of us.
“Joe has a lot to learn as a 10. He’s learning it pretty early in his career and that’s largely thanks to Steeno. To me, there’s a lot I can take from the Tank’s game. It’s not only his try scoring which has drip fed to me, but the whole way he approaches his game.
“I think I’ve been pretty consistent this season.”
So too have Exeter. It would take an upset of epic proportions for them not to progress.
Exeter Chiefs vs Newcastle Falcons team
Exeter: Lachie Turner; Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Sam Hill, Olly Woodburn; Joe Simmonds, Nic White; Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tomas Francis; Mitch Lees, Jonny Hill; Dave Ewers, Don Armand, Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Ben Moon, Greg Holmes, Sam Skinner, Thomas Waldrom, Stuart Townsend, Gareth Steenson, Ian Whitten.
Newcastle: Simon Hammersley; Vereniki Goneva, Chris Harris, Josh Matavesi, Sinoti Sinoti; Toby Flood, Michael Young; Sam Lockwood, Kyle Cooper, Scott Wilson; Calum Green, Evan Olmstead; Mark Wilson, Gary Graham, Ally Hogg.
Replacements: Santiago Socino, Rob Vickers, David Wilson, Will Witty, Nili Latu, Sonatane Takulua, Juan Pablo Socino, Alex Tait.
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