Saints 19 Chiefs 22
Northampton Saints 19
Exeter Chiefs 22
Mark Stevens at Franklin's Gardens
Ten years to the day, it was the start of Exeter’s Premiership journey.
Rob Baxter’s side had only weeks earlier been elevated to English rugby’s top tier for the first time, having overcome local rivals Bristol Bears in the inaugural Championship play-off final.
Many outside of Sandy Park didn’t given Devon’s finest much hope for their maiden voyage. Thankfully, those entrenched in the Chiefs camp had a much different mindset and over the decade that has followed since, the ‘Men in Black’ have set a standard - both on and off the field - which many are now trying to emulate.
Hard work, togetherness, commitment and a willingness to deliver have been key components of that rise. At Franklin’s Gardens tonight, all of those characteristics - and more - were on show as the Chiefs continued their impressive return to rugby since restart.
Converted first half tries for Sean Lonsdale and Jannes Kirsten helped them to a slender half time lead, before a second half penalty from Gareth Steenson and a late try from Tom O’Flaherty sealed a priceless victory.
For Steenson and team-mate Phil Dollman, both survivors of that opening day 22-10 victory against Gloucester, it was a moment to savour. So too it was for Premiership debutants Corey Baldwin, Tom Price and Alfie Petch, all of whom will have taken just as much satisfaction from this triumph.
Hosts Northampton Saints played their part in an entertaining encounter, lock David Ribbans claiming a try double, with another from scrum-half Harry Taylor. However, it was not enough to thwart the Chiefs, who they will face again in 16 days time in the quarter-final of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
The Chiefs came into this latest fixture having changed their entire starting XV from that which defeated Worcester Warriors 59-7 last time out. The main addition was that of Baldwin, who was handed his first start on the left wing as Baxter opted for virtually the same line-up which had won at Bristol Bears the previous week.
Northampton, meanwhile, were desperate to rediscover their winning formula, particularly on home turf. Chris Boyd’s side had lost their last five home games and the New Zealander was keen to address the slump, making 11 changes to his line-up from that which had lost 30-17 at Harlequins.
Buoyed by their own good form, it was an impressive start to the game for the visitors, who having absorbed an opening burst from the Saints, slowly started to crank into their attacking gear.
Half-backs Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Steenson were directing operations accordingly and it was from a clever mis-move in midfield that the Chiefs were able to claim their first score on eight minutes.
Using the forwards to punch their way deep into enemy territory, the ball was cleverly worked out wide where the onrushing Lonsdale was able to make the most of a clever dummy line and latch onto the ball. Still with plenty to do, the open side tore through the heart of the home defensive line, before rounding George Furbank to touchdown.
Steenson obliged with the extras for that score and Exeter’s second which arrived just moments later when again Baxter’s side carved space out wide, Alec Hepburn was the recipient on the left flank and when he looked inside, there was no one within touching distance of Kirsten, who was able to gallop in under the sticks.
It was the dream start for the Devonians, but nothing less than they deserved having bossed the opening quarter of the game.
The bewildered Saints didn’t know what had hit them, but as the half continued slowly they began to find their own rhythm. Pressing hard in attack they got within metres of the Exeter line on a handful of occasions, only to be repelled by a stubborn Chiefs rearguard action that was headed up by the hugely impressive Kirsten, who clocked up 21 tackles in the first period.
The home pressure, though, was building and on 29 minutes they finally burst the Chiefs dam with a close-range score from South African forward Ribbans, who was able to burrow in under the posts to cut the deficit.
Biggar added the simple conversion to take him past 300 points for the Saints, but the prolific Welshman was unable to double his tally just before the break, pulling his second conversion wide of the mark after Taylor had raced over for Northampton’s second.
The scrum-half was given the easiest of finishes after hooker James Fish sprung a perfect line through the middle to leave just two points between the two sides at the interval.
HALF TIME NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 12 EXETER CHIEFS 14
With little to choose between either side after the first 40 minutes, it was the Saints who were quickest out of the traps on the resumption, scoring their third try just two minutes into the resumption.
Centre Rory Hutchinson instigated the set move, the Scottish international tearing through the middle before feeding Biggar, whose charging run was halted by a last-gasp tackle from Kirsten. The home calvary, though, was close at hand and it was Ribbans who was able to barrel over from close range for the score. Biggar obliged with the extras and the hosts were in front for the first time on the night.
The score ignited the Saints and for a decent period midway through the half, they not only stood firm in defence, but they used a clever kicking game to pin the Chiefs back in their own 22.
Baxter, just as he did at Bristol recently, threw on fresh muscle from the bench and the introduction of Price, together with the young front-row triumvirate of Messrs Keast, Innard and Pitch, added a new zest up front for the visitors.
Helping to give front foot ball, Tom Hendrickson came alive in the centre with some thunderous carries, whilst O’Flaherty remained an ever-willing runner out wide, constantly gaining metres where it seemed impossible.
Slowly, but surely, the Chiefs were beginning to wrestle their way back into the contest and when Steenson reduced the home lead with a routine penalty, it set the stage for a grandstand finale to the game.
Needing no second invitation, the visitors threw caution to the wind. A mistake by Naiyaravoro gifted the Chiefs a penalty to the corner - and although the drive was held - the visitors masterfully worked the ball wide to the left channel where O’Flaherty, who had circled round quietly from the other flank, was able to collect the ball and drive over for what would prove the match-winning score.
It mattered not that Steenson could not land the testing touchline conversion. Instead, he masterfully oversaw the dying embers of the contest to ensure it was the visitors who trekked back to Devon with the smiles on their faces.
Saints: G Furbank; A Tuala (T Naiyaravoro 36), M Proctor, R Hutchinson, T Collins (P Francis 45); D Biggar, H Taylor (A Mitchell 61); F van Wyk (N Auterac 63), J Fish (S Matavesi 63), O Franks (P Hill 46); D Ribbans, A Ratuniyarawa (N Isiekwe 58); C Lawes, JJ Tonks (S Adendorff 60), T Harrison (capt).
Tries - Ribbans (2), Taylor; Conversions - Biggar (3)
Chiefs: J Hodge (H Skinner 44); T O’Flaherty, P Dollman, T Hendrickson, C Baldwin (T Wyatt 71); G Steenson, S Hidalgo-Clyne (J Snow 64); A Hepburn (B Keast 61), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 61), T Francis (A Petch 61); D Dennis (T Price 45), S Skinner; J Kirsten, S Lonsdale, D Armand. Replacement (not used): R Capstick.
Tries - Lonsdale, Kirsten, O'Flaherty; Conversions - Steenson (2); Penalty - Steenson
Referee: L Pearce