Saints 26 Chiefs 29
Northampton Saints 26
Exeter Chiefs 29
Mark Stevens at Franklin’s Gardens
A walkover one week, an acid test the next.
For Rob Baxter’s side, this was the proverbial ‘kick up the arse’ he and his players may have craved as his Exeter Chiefs outfit hit back from 18 points down at the break to claim a vital victory at the Gardens.
Hosts Northampton were the dominant force in the opening 40 minutes, making light work of David Ribbans’ red card after just 20 minutes to have the defending Gallagher Premiership champions reeling on the ropes.
These Chiefs, though, are heavyweight contenders when it comes to the top-flight and having used the interval to regather their thoughts, they came out punching in the second period, eventually flooring the Saints five minutes from time.
Skipper Joe Simmonds landed the match-winning blow, but he was also on hand to add conversions to three of the visitors four tries which came from Sam Skinner, Stuart Hogg, Stu Townsend and Ollie Devoto.
In the end to proved just enough and allowed the Devonians to maintain their top-two placing ahead of Sale Sharks, who visit Sandy Park in next weekend’s final fixture of the regular season.
The Chiefs need just a point from that encounter to ensure home status in the last four. However, they will need to play a lot better than they delivered for half this contest in the East Midlands sunshine.
Fresh from dishing out a record-breaking 74-3 win over Newcastle Falcons the previous week, Baxter paraded a largely unchanged line-up for this latest match-up. Up front, Ben Moon, Sean Lonsdale and Jonny Hill were added to the mix, while behind the return of Scottish captain Hogg at full-back saw Facundo Cordero shunted to the wing with Ian Whitten preferred to Devoto in the centre.
Northampton, meanwhile, were virtually at full-strength and buoyed by their first fans in the joint in over a year, they stormed out of the traps. They had a real gusto to their play and it quickly paid dividends as sustained pressure deep inside the Chiefs 22, allowed Dan Biggar to provide a clever, pump pass to Rory Hutchinson, who did the rest with a neat finish in the corner.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs craved, but they looked to counter almost immediately as Joe Simmonds slipped through the gap, before his pack of forwards took on the charge. The visitors, as they do, battered their way to within sniffing distance of the white line, thinking that Skinner had found his way over. The officials were undecided, but on review it was home flanker Courtney Lawes adjudged to have saved the day somehow.
Threat averted, the Saints duly cleared down field to where Luke Cowan-Dickie was waiting to run the ball back. The newly-named Lion collected possession, built up a head of steam, only to be pole-axed by Ribbans, whose shoulder connected with the head of the Cornishman.
It didn’t look pretty on first viewing and the subsequent replays beamed on the big screens only made the matter look a lot worse. Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys had little option but to show red to the lock.
Down a man, the Saints rallied as one, first scrambling in defence to cover Sam Simmonds as he looked to latch onto a poor pass from Cordero, then working in unison to send over Hutchinson for his second of the game, this time converted by Biggar.
Worse could easily have followed for the Chiefs, who were being outgunned at the breakdown. Matt Proctor almost squirmed his way through, before Biggar extended the home side’s lead with a penalty, then a drop-goal, to put his side firmly in command at the interval.
HALF TIME NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 18 EXETER CHIEFS 0
Baxter trudged from his vantage point in the Church Stand to that of the changing room knowing his side would need to overcome their biggest half time deficit in Premiership history. Down 16 points against Sale in 2011, the Chiefs had a much taller order to navigate this time around.
Whatever was said in the confines of the Chiefs bunker, it clearly had the desired effect as the visitors were much transformed on the return. All of a sudden there was more physicality and endeavour in their play; their work-rate had cranked up a notch and so with it came their first points.
The power game of the Chiefs up front set the foundation for the backs to release Cordero. Although halted shy of the line, the Argentine winger had much enough ground to allow his mates to bundle Skinner over for their opening try.
Up and running, it was just the lift Baxter’s side needed. Indeed, just four minutes later they were adding a second try, Hogg the beneficiary on this occasion as he latched onto a pass back inside from Whitten to dive over.
In an instance, the context of the game had started to turn. Northampton, though, were far from finished and when Biggar slotted a second penalty, again they were back two scores clear as the game headed towards the final quarter.
Baxter threw on fresh muscle from the sidelines to inject new life into his side’s charge - and it was one of those replacements, scrum-half Townsend who sniped off the back of a well-drilled, driving maul to claim their third try, converted by the boot of Simmonds.
But no sooner had the Chiefs given themselves the lifeline back into the game, some abject defending allowed the Saints to trundle down field, Freeman exposing the space before shipping an offload to Mike Heywood to score in the corner.
The Gardens duly erupted into a crescendo of noise, but it would prove short-lived as the Chiefs again hit back, Townsend the architect on this occasion as he again galloped clear before feeding Devoto to race under the sticks. Simmonds converted and all of a sudden we were back to parity.
With the ascendancy in their favour, the Chiefs continued to go about their business, forcing the Saints to concede a penalty deep inside their own 22. Simmonds opted for the posts and the young playmaker made no mistake, dispatching the kick between the uprights to put his side in front for the first time all game.
Northampton did their best to try and rescue something late on, declining a kickable penalty, for greater reward in the left corner. The Chiefs, though, were proving miserly in defence, eventually suffocating their rivals into submission.
Job done, bounty collected, now it’s onto the Sharks, who we know will offer a formidable bite.
Saints: T Freeman; O Sleightholme (F Dingwall 24), M Proctor,R Hutchinson, T Naiyaravoro; D Biggar (J Grayson 61), T James (A Mitchell 58); A Waller (co-capt, E Iyogun 59), S Matavesi (M Haywood 59), E Painter (O Heffernan 66); D Ribbans, A Ratuniyarawa (A Moon 58);C Lawes (A Coles 68),L Ludlam (co-capt), T Wood.
Tries - Hutchinson (2), Haywood; Conversion - Biggar; Penalties - Biggar (2); Drop-Goal - Biggar
Red Card: Ribbans
Chiefs: S Hogg; F Cordero (O Devoto 51), H Slade, I Whitten, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), J Maunder (S Townsend 58); B Moon (A Hepburn 50), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 58), H Williams (M Street 59); S Lonsdale (D Armand 59), J Hill; S Skinner, J Kirsten, S Simmonds (R Capstick 64). Replacement (not used): H Skinner.
Tries - S Skinner, Hogg, Townsend, Devoto; Conversions - J Simmonds (3); Penalty - J Simmonds
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys