Chiefs 38 Saints 15
Exeter Chiefs 38
Northampton Saints 15
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Rob Baxter challenged his Exeter side to create history - and they didn’t disappoint as the Chiefs advanced into their first-ever Heineken Champions Cup semi-final.
In ten years of top-flight action, the Chiefs have only once before made it to the last eight of European Rugby’s top table.
On that occasion, four years ago, they were undone at the death by the boot of Wasps playmaker Jimmy Gopperth.
Fast forward to modern-day and you will soon realise that this Chiefs side is much different to that which were picked off at the Ricoh Arena that day.
Sure, personnel may not have changed dramatically, but the mind-set, the experience and the big-game mentality has moved on immensely. These days the Chiefs are a rising force within the modern-day game.
Now, they will have the chance to prove it against European royalty, Toulouse, who will provide the opposition in Saturday’s eagerly anticipated semi-final.
Baxter’s side set up their last four showdown with the four-time European champions, courtesy of a five-try display that rivals Northampton Saints simply could not contain. Flanker Jacques Vermeulen bagged a brace, while there were further scores for Jack Maunder, Jack Nowell and Jonny Hill.
The Saints, played their part too, bagging scores of their own through Teimana Harrison and Fraser Dingwall, but it was never going to be enough against a Chiefs side who again looked good value for money.
With European action returning for the first time since January, it was the visitors who started this last eight encounter on the front foot. Boyd’s side - who had been beaten twice already this term by their Devon hosts in the Gallagher Premiership - tore into their rivals with a ferocity that Baxter knew would come, despite their recent lack of form.
Early pressure saw them snag Nowell on his own try-line and from the resultant spell of pressure off a five-metre scrum, they were able to glean the game’s opening points of the game when Dan Biggar slotted a routine penalty from in front of the posts.
It was no more than the Saints deserved, particularly given their solid start to proceedings. However, the Chiefs soon awoke from their slumber and with it came two quick-tries.
Scrum-half Maunder was the first to cross, barrelling his way over from a few metres out after the Chiefs had driven the Saints off their own ball, before working the ball out wide into the midfield where Slade’s twinkling foot work saw him evade three opposition defenders, before he was able to slip an offload to the onrushing Maunder.
Skipper Simmonds obliged with the extras to that score and Exeter’s second, which arrived just moments later. This time it was the brute force of the home pack which did the damage.
Using a tap penalty from Luke Cowan-Dickie, he propelled himself towards the line, only to be chopped down just a few yards out. Undeterred, those around him assembled en masse to work the opening down the blindside from which South African flanker Vermeulen was able to drive low and hard for the score.
In a five-minute period, the Chiefs had underlined their all-court strengths. The first a slick attacking move, the second a powerful demonstration of the strength that exists within the Exeter eight.
Northampton, to their credit, were themselves still offering plenty and with the stats showing them ahead on both territory and possession, they continued to pose their own attacking threat.
Having won two penalties of their own, Biggar used them to punt them to within touching distance of the home line. Although the Chiefs repelled the first catch-and-drive attempt, albeit illegally, when the Saints were afforded a second attempt, they exposed a clever opening of their own down the blindside to send skipper Harrison over for their opening try, converted by the boot of Welshman Biggar.
It was just the boost the visitors craved and as half time approached, they came within a whisker of claiming a second score. Henry Taylor’s sniping run, followed by a powerful raid from Lewis Ludlam, got them on the front foot, but just as they looked poised to strike, they were held up by some outstanding defence from the Chiefs.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 10
Northampton’s strong end to the half showcased the threat they still posed, but their fires were quickly dampened on the resumption as the Chiefs claimed a third converted try inside two minutes.
Whatever Baxter had said to his charges during the interval, it clearly had the desired effect. Immediately, the trademark Exeter power game was put into practice as the forwards punched their way up field, before the ball was worked to the right channel where Nowell was lying in wait.
The Cornishman, the son of a Newlyn-based fisherman, is one of Exeter’s prized catches and he used his slippery stature to weave his way around the Northampton defensive net and under the sticks for the score.
Three tries soon became four as once more the Chiefs used their heavyweight armoury up front to batter their rivals into submission. Jonny Gray gobbled up the line-out, Sam Simmonds was held just shy of the whitewash, before the free-scoring Hill lapped up the ball at the base of the ruck and powered his way over for yet another converted try.
At 28-10 up, the hosts were firmly in control of proceedings. Northampton, though, were not going quietly and when they reduced the arrears with a try of their own just two minutes later through Dingwall, who picked a lovely line off a line-out to crash over in the corner, you sensed there may still be a bit of life left in their European adventure.
This Chiefs mob, however, are made of stern stuff and although they will readily admit they weren’t always quite at the races, they used the final quarter of the game to ruthlessly close the game out.
Simmonds slotted a penalty on the hour mark after prop Manny Iyogun, the subject of much debate ahead of kick-off, conceded a penalty under pressure from Exeter replacement Tomas Francis.
Then, with just three minutes remaining, the Chiefs wrapped up proceedings when man-of-the-match Vermeulen claimed his second of the day, the all-action open-side galloping pass the attentions of Nick Isiekwe and Shaun Adendorff to score once more.
It was fitting that fly-half Gareth Steenson, the club’s record points-scorer - who is in his final year as a Chiefs player, plundered the testing touchline conversion to put the coup de grace on Exeter’s win.
The Irishman has been at the heart of Exeter’s excellent adventure these past ten years, so how good would it be for him and the likes of Ewers, Ben Moon and Phil Dollman, other survivors of the old Championship days, to now write a new chapter in the Chiefs history books.
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten (O Devoto 71), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt, G Steenson 76), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 58); A Hepburn (B Moon 58), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 58), H Williams (T Francis 58); J Gray, J Hill (S Skinner 54); D Ewers (J Kirsten 60), J Vermeulen, S Simmonds.
Tries - J Maunder, Vermeulen (2), Nowell, J Hill; Conversions - J Simmonds (4), Steenson; Penalty - J Simmonds
Saints: G Furbank, M Proctor, F Dingwall, R Hutchinson, A Tuala (T Naiyaravoro 68), D Biggar, H Taylor (A Mitchell 51), M Iyogun (A Seville 72), M Haywood (J Fish 54), O Franks (P Hill 49); D Ribbans, A Ratuniyarawa (N Isiekwe 51); C Lawes, L Ludlam (A Moon 69), T Harrison (capt, S Adendorff 69).
Tries - Harrison, Dingwall; Conversion - Biggar; Penalty - Biggar
Referee: M Carley