Chiefs 43 Saints 28
Exeter Chiefs 43
Northampton Saints 28
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Firework Night may be 24 hours away, but Exeter Chiefs put in a sparkling display to kick-off their Anglo-Welsh Cup campaign with a bang.
Ricky Pellow's side were all fired up on their way to a seven-try success against visiting Northampton Saints in this Round One opener at Sandy Park.
Summer signings Toby Salmon (2), James Freeman and Tom O'Flaherty were all on the mark for Devon's finest, as were James Short, Alec Hepburn and Elvis Taione.
Fly-half Joe Simmonds completed the job by converting four of the scores to give the Chiefs the perfect start to this season's tournament.
In reply, the Saints - who were second-best for large parts of the contest - claimed a losing bonus point through converted tries from George Furbank, Tom Stephenson, Juan-Pablo Estelles and Rory Hutchinson, but they were the only bright spots on a tough day at the office for Jim Mallinder's side, who have now lost five games on the spin.
After some hefty exertions in both the Premiership and Europe in recent weeks, it was a much changed Chiefs side that took to the field for this opening fixture of the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
Indeed, just two of Exeter’s starting line-up - Short and Ollie Atkins - remained in place from the side which had won at Sale Sharks the last time out. Otherwise, it was a much-changed team with the Devonians handing first starts to James Freeman in the pack and Tom O’Flaherty and Sal M’Boge in the back division.
The Saints, meanwhile, also mixed things up, choosing to go with a healthy mix of youth and experience, which included the likes of Christian Day, Tom Wood and record points-scorer Stephen Myler at fly-half.
It was the Chiefs - resplendent in their vivid pink jerseys - who started brightly, dominating the early exchanges. The forwards set the tone with some determined work up front, while behind the backs - who included Ollie Devoto for his first appearance of the season - were looking sharp with ball in hand.
Strong carries from skipper Kai Horstmann and Sam Skinner saw the home side punch their way deep into the Saints 22, creating pressure on Northampton who, having soaked up the initial wave, then strayed offside in midfield.
With free ball to play with, Simmonds took charge of proceedings, looking up, before kicking cross-field and into the waiting arms of the unmarked Short. The Exeter man collected the kick, before gliding his way over the whitewash for the opening score, which was converted by Simmonds.
The home lead proved short-lived, however, as the Saints drew level in an instance, profiting off some sloppy home defending. Scrum-half Cobus Reinach sniped away from a ruck, breaking clear of the cover defence, before the ball was worked to within inches of the Exeter line, where Furbank was able to collect a pass and dive under the sticks for the score, converted by Myler.
That would be Furbank’s last meaningful action as he limped out of the action just moments later when trying to challenge O’Flaherty in the air. He became the first Northampton casualty to depart inside the opening 15 minutes with locks James Craig and Day also exiting stage right.
Exeter too were forced into change when Ollie Atkins went off for a HIA check - and it was his replacement, summer signing Salmon, who added the Chiefs second try. The former Rotherham forward was on hand to power his way over in the right corner, finishing off some neat approach work from the Devonians.
Two tries soon became three as the Exeter eight came together once more, this time forcing the opening for Hepburn to squirm his way over from close range for his first-ever try in Chiefs colours. Simmonds again obliged with the extras to put his side 19-7 to the good.
Again, the Saints refused to lie down. In attack they often looked threatening and had it not been for the odd handling error, they could easily have caused more problems for Pellow’s side. As it was, they did cut the deficit just past the half-hour mark when Stephenson claimed their second converted score, finding his way over the home line following a sustained spell of pressure.
In attack, though, the Chiefs were looking menacing and in a powerful conclusion to the half, they hit the visiting Midlanders with a quickfire double.
Freeman was the first to cross, sealing the bonus point in the process, as he bulldozed his way past two Northampton defenders following good approach work from both Short and Skinner. Then, with the final play of the half, Tongan international Taione added the fifth score, burrowing his way over from a well-drilled line-out move.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 31 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 14
Well adrift at the turn, the Saints knew they needed to start the second period brightly. Reinach - who was lively all game - threatened initially with a searing break through the heart of the Exeter midfield, but as he looked to offload to the onrushing Ben Nutley, his team-mate could not collect the pass, spilling the ball with the line in sight.
It kind of summed up the day for the Saints, who were made to pay shortly after as the Chiefs extended their lead with their first meaningful attack of the second half. Strong carries from Freeman, Matt Kvesic and Horstmann got the home side to within touching distance of the line, after which the ball was spun wide to the right to the waiting O’Flaherty, who dived over for his maiden score.
The Chiefs were far from finished, extending their lead yet further when Salmon claimed his second of the afternoon, rumbling over from close range after Short had caused havoc in the visiting ranks with an initial break, which was followed up by the Exeter pack. Simmonds converted to put his side 43-14 to the good.
With his side firmly in command of things, Pellow took the opportunity to run his bench. Hill, Jack Maunder and Marcus Street were all introduced into the fray with the latter quickly making his mark at scrum time against the experienced Francois Van Wyk.
Street’s first set-piece saw the Chiefs glean a penalty, but the home side chose to play the advantage. Short took up the running with a trademark burst, after which Simmonds again went cross-field, his kick narrowly eluding the galloping O’Flaherty down the right flank.
Northampton’s frustrations were clearly growing, a point emphasised when former Cornish Pirates and Bristol prop, Jamal Ford-Robinson, was marched back a further ten metres for unnecessary chat towards referee Matthew O’Grady. And from the resultant penalty, the Chiefs threatened again, only for a spilt pass in midfield to deny them from adding to their tally.
To their credit, Northampton refused to lie down and in a spirited show of defiance late on, they were rewarded with two scores in quick succesion.
Quick-thinking from replacement scrum-half Alex Mitchell saw him chip in behind from a tap penalty, allowing winger Estelles to gobble up the loose pass for their third try; then centre Hutchinson was on hand to burst clear and scramble his way to the line for the all-important bonus point try with less than ten minutes remaining. On both occasions, Grayson - the son of former Saints and England playmaker, Paul Grayson - slotted the necessary extras.
The brace ensured the Saints marched back up the M5 with at least a bonus point for their efforts, but it was scant reward on an afternoon when the Chiefs had too much in their locker.
Chiefs: S M’Boge (S Morley 59); T O’Flaherty, T Hendrickson, O Devoto (S Hill 50), J Short; J Simmonds, W Chudley (J Maunder 57); A Hepburn (B Keast 65), E Taione (S Malton h/t), M Low (M Street 57); O Atkins (T Salmon 13-23, 50), S Skinner; J Freeman, M Kvesic, K Horstmann (capt, T Lawday 69).
Tries - Short, Salmon (2), Hepburn, Freeman, Taione, O’Flaherty; Conversions - J Simmonds (4)
Saints: G Furbank (T Emery 15); J-P Estelles, R Hutchinson, T Stephenson, K Pisi; S Myler (J Grayson 57), C Reinach (A Mitchell 60); F van Wyk (M Beesley 69), R Marshall (J Fish 65), P Hill (J Ford-Robinson 54); J Craig (J Onojaife 4), C Day (M Eadie 15); T Wood, B Nutley, S Dickinson (capt).
Tries - Furbank, Stephenson, Estelles, Hutchinson; Conversions - Myler (2), Grayson (2)
Referee: M O’Grady