Chiefs 40 Saints 21
Exeter Chiefs 40
Northampton Saints 21
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
If this was the appetizer, then next week’s main course should serve up another treat as Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints will battle it out for a place in this season’s Gallagher Premiership Final at Twickenham.
Rob Baxter’s side bagged top spot – for a second successive season – producing a ruthless second half showing to eventually stymie the threat of the visiting Saints, who had twice taken the lead through converted tries from Piers Francis and Rory Hutchinson.
On both occasions, the Devonians responded in kind. First, Henry Slade glided over for their opener, before England colleague Ben Moon ploughed his way over from close range to restore parity.
As Exeter’s grip on proceedings grew, so the scoreboard kept ticking, this time Don Armand – on his 100th Premiership appearance for the club – found his way over to put his side in front for the first time.
With the Saints struggling to contend the home threat as half time approached, the loss of Courtney Lawes and Alex Waller to yellow cards did little to help their cause.
The Chiefs smelt blood and with the clock run for the opening 40 minutes, it was the home side who were camped within sniffing distance of the Northampton line. However, just as Exeter looked poised to pounce, Ollie Devoto’s intended wrap around move was read superbly by South African Cobus Reinach, who raced the length of the field to level things up at the turn.
Baxter was less than impressed with that score, but whatever the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby muttered to his troops during the interval, it clearly had the desired effect as his side ruled the roost during the second period.
Tries from Matt Kvesic, Dave Dennis and Luke Cowan-Dickie put the seal on a polished display from the Chiefs, whose victory not only ensured them of top billing at the end of the regular season, but also ensured a club record haul of 86 points accrued from a Premiership campaign.
Northampton, well beaten come the end, were able at least able to celebrate somewhat as results elsewhere meant they clung on narrowly to the final play-off place.
Now, however, the two must do it all over again.
Earlier, the Saints arrived in town as one of the division’s form teams, having won their last three games on the spin. They made four changes their side from that which had won at Worcester Warriors last time out and it was Francis – named in the centre – who gave them the dream start with just two minutes played.
Capitalising on advantage ball, Jamie Gibson was released down the right, he made decent inroads before he fed the ball inside to onrushing full-back Ahsee Tuala. Although he was felled just shy of the line by Alex Cuthbert, Francis was close at hand to pick up the pieces and steal over for the opening points of the contest.
It was the dream start for the Saints, who having beaten the Chiefs in the corresponding fixture back in December, were looking to become the only side this season to do the domestic double over Baxter’s side.
The home response, though, was swift. Using their forwards to pound their way down field, the ball was worked out wide to Ollie Devoto, whose clever grubber kick in behind fell invitingly into the path of Slade, who was able to glide over for the score, converted by Joe Simmonds.
Moments later, the Chiefs thought they had scored again, Nic White and Devoto combining delightfully off a line-out move to feed Olly Woodburn, who raced his way half the field and under the sticks.
The natives erupted with a roar of approval no doubt heard miles away at the nearby Devon County Show. Sadly, those cheers proved short-lived as following review, the effort was chalked off for a forward pass by Devoto.
Slade went close again, only to be denied by a quality piece of cover defence from Francis, before the Saints re-established their lead with a converted try from Hutchinson, who was able to finish off great approach work involving the lively Reinach.
Once again, the Chiefs rallied in response and having seen the immense Dave Ewers held up on the line, there was no doubt about Moon’s score, the long-serving prop burrowing his way over after his fellow forwards had pushed and probed with a tsunami of close-range raids.
It was a tactic that would serve the Chiefs well, particularly when the visitors were reduced to 13 men with the loss of both Lawes and Waller to yellow cards. The numerical advantage paid dividends as Armand found his way over to put his team in front for the first time.
Exeter could – and probably should – have added to the tally before the break, but just as they looked set to pounce, they inexplicably gift-wrapped a try for their rivals as Reinach read the situation perfectly to intercept Devoto’s pass and race the field to score.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 21 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 21
It was a tough pill to swallow right on the stroke of half time, but whatever words Baxter uttered during the 15-minute rest break, it clearly had the desired effect. Not only did the precision in the home side’s play sharpen significantly, but the intensity and line speed in defence was cranked up a number of notches.
Northampton did their best to quell the threat, but with the Chiefs gaining dominance in the set-piece, particularly scrum-time where they won a host of penalties, so the pressure began to tell.
A Slade punt to the right corner put the home side deep within the Northampton 22, after which the Chiefs pack did what they do best. Jonny Hill, masterful at line-out time all day, took the catch, the rest of the forwards packed around him and when push came to shove, it was Kvesic who found his way through the middle of the maul to claim the bonus point score.
Four tries soon became five for the Chiefs who, just before the hour, flexed their muscles to good effect once again. This time around it was an all Australian affair, White spearing a ball into the path of the onrushing Dennis, who picked a lovely line and sped like a Bullet Train to the posts for the score converted by Simmonds.
Northampton looked to counter almost immediately and they thought they had reduced the deficit when Hutchinson’s clever chip and chase saw him in a foot race to the line with Woodburn. The Saints man thought he’d scored, the officials, on the other hand, were not so sure. Subsequent TV replays followed, each of them looking more favourably towards the Chiefs.
Eventually, referee Karl Dickson ruled the effort out and the Chiefs regrouped as one to inflict further woe on their rivals.
The sight of Sam Skinner and Sam Simmonds, the latter playing his first league match since September, merely highlighted the resources available to the hosts. Both were involved in Exeter’s sixth try, which came courtesy of fellow replacement Cowan-Dickie, who found his way over in the final quarter.
With events at the Ricoh Arena between Wasps and Harlequins, the nearest challengers to Northampton for that final play-off berth, beginning to take greater importance, it was left to the Chiefs to ruthlessly close out the contest. This they did with aplomb, ensuring they head into next weekend’s rematch firmly on the front foot.
Chiefs: J Nowell; A Cuthbert (S Hill 53), H Slade (G Steenson 74), O Devoto, O Woodburn; J Simmonds, N White (J Maunder 74); B Moon (B Keast 66), J Yeandle (capt, L Cowan-Dickie 55), H Williams (T Francis 50); D Dennis (S Skinner 59), J Hill; D Ewers (S Simmonds 60), D Armand, M Kvesic.
Tries – Slade, Moon, Armand, Kvesic, Dennis, Cowan-Dickie; Conversions – J Simmonds (5)
Saints: A Tuala; T Collins (F Van Wyk 40-50), R Hutchinson, P Francis (L Burrell 53), T Naiyaravoro; D Biggar (J Grayson 33-40, 59), C Reinach (A Mitchell 47); A Waller (capt), R Marshall (J Fish 5), P Hill (B Franks 61); A Moon (D Ribbans 57), C Lawes; J Gibson, L Ludlam (T Wood 57), T Harrison.
Tries – Francis, Hutchinson, Reinach; Conversions – Biggar (2), Grayson
Yellow Cards: Lawes, Waller
Referee: K Dickson