Radio Exe Match Report: Exeter Chiefs 36 – 42 Northampton Saints

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Having come out firing in the first half, an incredibly gritty and hard-worked second half saw the Chiefs defeated at the death by a resurgent Northampton Saints side at Sandy Park.

The sun-bathed the east terrace in warmth on a chilly January day as Exeter Chiefs got their first match of 2024 off to a competitive start.

To the great delight of the home crowd, the first Sandy Park try of the calendar year was a Chiefs one. Stringing together some lovely phases of play in the Saints 22, Harvey Skinner connected well with Immanuel Feyi-Waboso for some strong yards through contact out wide.

The ball was entrusted to the forwards at the breakdown and it didn’t take long for the weighty figure of Jacques Vermeulen to batter his way through the bodies, reaching out an arm for the score which the cheer of the South Stand confirmed the score before the TMO agreed. Henry Slade’s conversion made it the full contingent of points on the board.

Men of the moment currently, Slade and Feyi-Waboso turned on the class for Chiefs’ second score. A bungled pass from Saints found it’s way into Slade’s grasp – one-handed, he spun it around his ribcage to flick pass the ball out the back to Harvey Skinner.

The fly-half put in a pass wider than his winger stood, but the bounce of the ball off the turf was perfect for Feyi-Waboso who snapped it out of the air to quite literally fly over in the corner to avoid touch and a last-gasp tackle attempt.

The trick plays had started, and they kept coming. Minutes later, Jack Yeandle threw short to the front of the lineout for his scrum-half, Stu Townsend, to pop him back the ball. The hooker took off down the touchline, feeding back inside to Townsend just inside the 22 to finish off the score. Slade then added the conversion.

To the astonishment of the hefty Devon crowd, the bonus point score came after just 22 minutes played as Chiefs looked to put a stranglehold on the first half against a usually confronting Northampton side.

Working ball off of a clean lineout take from Dafydd Jenkins, the ever-combative Vermeulen carried ball into, and through, contact to twist his body on the line and reach a paw out to ground the ball for his second score of the day. Slade then secured his third conversion.

Saints’ first glimmer of opportunity in Chiefs territory came shortly following the brace score from Chiefs’ back rower. A positive platform from the lineout led to repeated phases in the 22. It sapped energy from the visitors as the Chiefs’ defensive set met them at each carry.

Consecutive penalties – for not rolling away at the breakdown followed by an off-side call – brought them within a couple of metres of the line. However, the hunger of the Exeter defence was too strong to overcome and the home side were awarded a knock-on penalty after their rush defence caused a fumble from Tarek Haffar as he looked to take an offload from Sam Graham.

The penalty was unfortunately overturned in favour of the visitors when a TMO check judged Jenkins had tackled his man high and the Welshman was sent from the field with a yellow card.

It had taken half an hour, but Saints scrum half Callum Braley shepherded his troops well within five metres of the Chiefs line before backing himself in a gap for the line, securing the try before half-back partner Fin Smith secured the conversion.

Having got their first taste of points, the men from Northampton were quickly in for their second. Smith chipped a kick out for Tom Litchfield in the wide channel. Off his wing, he found Ollie Sleightholme inside of him for the support line pass to run-in the score. Smith promptly took the conversion to keep as many minutes alive in the first half as he could.

Despite the fly-half’s speedy work, there were to be no more scores in the opening half as the teams returned to the changing rooms, Chiefs already in possession of a bonus point.

Half-time: Chiefs 26 – 14 Saints

There was work to be done at the outset of the second half as Northampton reemerged onto the pitch with the fire they seemed to have been kindling on the closing minutes of the first 40 played.

Frustratingly for Chiefs, they were once more reduced to 14 men. This time Slade was shown the referee’s yellow for head contact made on Burger Odendaal off the ball as Joe Hawkins looked to carry through the line. The Saints man left the field for a HIA and blood replacement as the Chiefs man took his seat in the sin bin.

With time nearly up on Slade’s sin-binning, Saints were able to make good on the man advantage. Repeated penalties at the breakdown gave them the opportunity of a lineout in the Chiefs 22. Alex Coles and Angus Scott-Young carried well off the back of the set piece before a wider pass to George Furbank sent the full back in beneath the posts. Smith’s conversion brought Saints within a try of their hosts on the scoreboard.

They closed that gap completely minutes later. As Chiefs looked the meet their attackers quickly, a gap big enough for Alex Mitchell opened in the line on the halfway. The replacement scrum-half scampered through it, drawing in Ben Hammersley long enough to give Sleightholme a clean run-in on the wing. Smith’s conversion took Saints ahead for the first time in the encounter.

A fresh set of legs on the field, Ross Vintcent thought he had ensured Chiefs weren’t behind for long. A ball out on the full from Saints was the kick-starter of the Exeter men making their way downfield. With patience at a ruck in the Saints 22, Vintcent saw a chance in front of him, grabbing the ball off the floor to run it in for the score.

However, a TMO check deemed there was an Exeter man ahead of the ruck causing an obstruction and so the try was disallowed. Chiefs had a penalty already coming their way regardless of the no-score, so Slade pointed for the sticks.

The centre slotted the penalty nicely to regain a short lead for the men in black that was promptly stolen back by their opposition as another overlap in defence gave Sleightholme the space to find his hattrick score. With Smith’s conversion, Chiefs needed to knuckle down to some tough work to regain their footing in the match.

The crowd was getting a little jittery as the 70th minute arrived, but they needn’t have been as Rusi Tuima was soon rampaging his way across the whitewash. A set move off a lineout on the far side drew Greg Fisilau, Vintcent and Tuima into a lovely piece of interchange play before the latter took the ball on himself, breaking a tackle to secure the try. With bated breath, the home fans watched on as Slade secured the all-important conversion.

Heartbreakingly for the home side, it wasn’t to be enough. In the dying embers of the game, with the clock ticking into the red, a penalty gave Saints front-foot ball. Working to force short kick to touch from Tommy Wyatt, Saints took the set piece that gave them and grit their teeth for a last drive.

Moving in field to tighten the Chiefs defence, they then snapped ball wide to Rory Hutchinson to run the game-clincher in with space. Smith’s conversion sealed the already sure win for the Northampton men.

Full-time: Chiefs 36 – 42 Saints

Chiefs: T Wyatt; I Feyi-Waboso, H Slade, J Hawkins (Devoto 58’), B Hammersley (Wimbush 58’); H Skinner, S Townsend (Cairns 55’); N Abuladze (Hepburn 50’), J Yeandle (Norey 50’), J Iosefa-Scott (Painter 50’), L Pearson, D Jenkins (c) (Tuima 51’), E Roots, J Vermeulen (Vintcent 58’), G Fisilau.

Tries: Vermeulen 2, Feyi-Waboso, Townsend, Tuima Conversions: Slade 4 Penalties: Slade

Yellow card: Dafydd Jenkins, Henry Slade

Saints: G Furbank (c); O Sleightholme, B Odendaal (Dingwall 46’), R Hutchinson, T Litchfield (Freeman 50’); F Smith, C Braley (Mitchell 50’); T Haffar (Iyogun 50’), S Matavesi (Langdon 50’), T Davison (Millar Mills 58’), A Moon, C Munga (Pearson 58’), A Coles, A Scott-Young, S Graham.

Tries: Braley, Sleightholme 3, Furbank, Hutchinson Conversions: Smith 6

Referee: Anthony Woodthorpe

Attendance: 14,091

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