Chiefs 57 Saints 7
Exeter Chiefs 57
Northampton Saints 7
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Storms Ciara and Dennis may have swept through Britain in recent days, but it was Storm force Exeter who wreaked a trail of destruction here at Sandy Park.
Rob Baxter’s side stretched their lead at the summit of the Gallagher Premiership blowing away visiting Northampton Saints with an eight-try blast, which will have spelt an ominous warning to rivals across the division.
The visiting Saints arrived in Devon hot on the heels of their hosts, who after defeats to Sale Sharks in the league, then Harlequins in the Premiership Rugby Cup, rediscovered their winning formula at Gloucester last weekend.
Going into this weekend’s Round 11 match-up, just four points separated the Chiefs and the Saints. However, by the end of this contest, the first of three scheduled meetings between the two this season, that gulf had been emphatically extended to nine points.
In what was a season’s-best showing from the Chiefs, not only did they lay down a potential marker for those two remaining fixtures, which includes April’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final, but they also demonstrated that have within their make-up, an all-court game which can challenge the very best.
Tries from Jonny Hill, Elvis Taione, Jannes Kirsten, Ben Moon, Tom O’Flaherty, Sam Simmonds and a brace for Tom Hendrickson underlined their superiority against a Saints outfit, whose scant reward was a converted, second half score for fly-half James Grayson.
That was Northampton’s scant reward on a day when they certainly felt the full force of the Chiefs.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter was forced into changing his winning formula from the week previous. Phil Dollman came in at full-back for Stuart Hogg, who was away on Six Nations duty with Scotland; Hendrickson replaced the crocked Sam Hill in the centre; while Joe Simmonds was back from suspension to fill the No.10 role ahead of Gareth Steenson.
The Saints, meanwhile, were also missing a glut of talent through injury and international call-ups. However, they also opted to pick a number of their perceived front-liners on the bench, including the dangerous Cobus Reinach.
With a howling cross-field breeze to contend with, the opening exchanges proved somewhat flat compared to what would follow later. Defences ruled the roost, handling errors were commonplace, and the general clash was restricted to a decent slug fest between the respective pack of forwards.
However, when play finally did break out it was the Chiefs who stole in front, Joe Simmonds slotting a routine penalty on 11 minutes after the visitors had been pulled up for infringing at a ruck.
The Exeter playmaker had the chance minutes later to double his tally, but his intended kick caught on the wind and drifted wide of the near post. For Simmonds it was a first missed kick in 19 attempts, proving the point that even the best can miss at some stage.
As it was, it wasn’t all that of a problem for the hosts, who having put in a stunning set of defensive waves to thwart the dangerous Taqele Naiyaravoro, hit the Saints with three tries in the final ten minutes of the half.
The first of those was instigated by Nic White, whose clever kick in behind had the Saints under pressure. Grayson did his best to lap up the loose ball, but when he bounced awkwardly, he was met by a thumping hit from the chasing Jacques Vermeulen.
The South African’s efforts, combined with that of Harry Williams, enabled the Chiefs to not only turn over possession, but working the opening for Hill to use his lanky frame to stretch over for the score.
Moments later and the Chiefs were celebrating again. O’Flaherty’s dangerous counter saw him make decent yardage into the Saints 22, whereby any hopes of hot ball was cynically thwarted by the actions of winger Tom Collins. Dispatched to the sidelines by referee Jack Makepeace, Exeter used the resultant play to tap a close-range penalty, the fruits of which enabled Tongan hooker Taione to power over.
Simmonds converted that score and his side’s third, which arrived on the stroke of half time, when man-of-the-match Kirsten forced his way over following decent approach work from Vermeulen and Dave Ewers.
It was just reward for the flame-haired forward, whose work in the loose, coupled with his destructive tackling, had Saints clearly searching for answers.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 22 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 0
Northampton Director of Rugby, Chris Boyd, had clearly seen enough and during the break made four changes, throwing on a completely new front-row, as well as England international Lewis Ludlam.
Hoping the fresh muscle may bring about a change in fortunes, the New Zealander would hardly have been impressed as his side coughed up two quickfire penalties inside the opening few minutes to gift Chiefs prime territory deep inside their 22.
Although the tried-and-trusted line-out drive was repelled well by the visitors, there would be no let-up in pressure as the Chiefs continued to pile forward. Sam Simmonds picked from the base of a scrum, he linked with half-backs White and Ian Whitten the latter of whom picked the perfect pass for Hendrickson to find his way over for the converted bonus point score.
It was impressive stuff from Baxter’s side, but they were far from finished.
Moon was next to cross the whitewash, the England international latching onto another sumptuous pass from Joe Simmonds to crash under the posts at the North End. Mobbed by his team-mates, it was a special moment for the long-serving prop who will be sure to thank winger O’Flaherty for his part in the early build-up.
With the Northampton jugular well and truly exposed, the blood-thirsty Chiefs could to pile forward. Jonny Hill was held up over the line by a great saving tackle from Teimana Harrison, but there would be no stopping Hendrickson on the hour mark, the hard-running centre feeding off another Simmonds pass to barge his way over by the sticks.
Down 43-0, the Saints appeared somewhat shell-shocked at events happening around them. By now, both sides were emptying their benches and it was Reinach’s intervention which helped spark some life into the visitors.
Awarded a penalty deep inside the Exeter 22, the World Cup winner tapped quickly, creating the opening for Grayson to glide over for what was nothing more than a consolation score.
Indeed, the Chiefs used the subsequent restart from Steenson to pin themselves back in Northampton’s half. Centre Matt Proctor gathered the hanging kick safely enough, but as the marauding home pack flooded in around him, possession was coughed up and it was Don Armand’s slight of hand which sparked the opening for O’Flaherty to cruise over.
Steenson administered the extras to that score and Exeter’s final effort, which arrived with just two minutes remaining. Looking to counter from deep inside their own half, Saints full-back Ahsee Tuala threw a speculative pass to his right, Sam Skinner lapped up the loose ball, before offering the simplest of chances to Sam Simmonds.
Speaking this week about his hopes of bettering the try-scoring strike-rate of former Exeter No.8 Thomas Waldrom, this was another step in the right direction for the England international who continues to deliver on the club scene.
Chiefs: P Dollman; T O’Flaherty, I Whitten (M Bodilly 64), T Hendrickson, O Woodburn; J Simmonds (capt, G Steenson 61), N White (J Maunder 54); B Moon (A Hepburn 54), E Taione (J Poole 66), H Williams (E Pieretto 66); J Kirsten (S Skinner 60), J Hill; D Ewers (D Armand 61), J Vermeulen, S Simmonds.
Tries - J Hill, Taione, Kirsten, Hendrickson (2), Moon, O’Flaherty, S Simmonds; Conversions - J Simmonds (5), Steenson; Penalty - J Simmonds
Saints: A Tuala; T Collins (F Dingwall 12-18), M Proctor, A Symons, T Naiyaravoro (F Dingwall 54); J Grayson (T Naiyaravoro 77), A Mitchell (C Reinach 54); F van Wyk (A Waller h/t), J Fish (M Haywood h/t), P Hill (O Franks h/t); A Coles, L Bean (B Glynn 60); T Wood (M Eadie 65), JJ Tonks (L Ludlam h/t), T Harrison (capt).
Try - Grayson; Conversion - Grayson
Yellow Card: Collins
Referee: J Makepeace