Saints 31 Chiefs 28
Northampton Saints 31
Exeter Chiefs 28
Mark Stevens at Franklin’s Gardens
After hitting the heights last week by toppling defending Gallagher Premiership champions Saracens, Exeter Chiefs were brought back down to earth with a bang as they ended 2018 on a low note.
The pre-Christmas stuffing of the Londoners just days earlier was now replaced with the sickly feeling of tasting defeat in the top flight for a second time this season.
Northampton Saints not only edged this absorbing contest, but for long periods their desire and fight - two qualities the Chiefs had shown by the bucket load just days earlier - proved enough to see them pocket all five points and nudge themselves back up the congested Premiership table and into the top four.
Early converted tries from Piers Francis and Dan Biggar gave the hosts the dream start, only for the Chiefs to hit back with scores of their own through a penalty try and another for Santiago Cordero.
However, further touchdowns from Fraser Dingwall and Cobus Reinach, plus a crucial second half penalty from Biggar, proved decisive enough for the Saints, who despite conceding a plethora of penalties at scrum time were able to hold firm under intense pressure from Rob Baxter’s side.
In the end, the visitors masked a disappointing showing on their part to pick up two losing bonus points, courtesy of second half tries from Ben Moon and Matt Kvesic. However, that was scant reward on a sorry night at the office for the Devonians.
Indeed, the only other positive the Chiefs would glean from their latest away-day was the fact that those points will at least ensure they stay level top at the halfway stage of the season.
What will follow in the coming months is yet to be decided, but for one thing for sure is that last season’s beaten finalists will face a number of hurdles such as this, all of which will need to be cleared better than they did on this occasion.
Fresh from their victory over previously unbeaten Saracens prior to Christmas, Baxter still saw fit to tinker with his winning formula making a handful of changes for the trip to the Gardens.
Up front, Moon, Elvis Taione and Harry Williams made up a new-look, International front-row, while behind them Mitch Lees was brought into the second row at the expense of Dave Dennis.The back division was largely untouched, the sole change seeing Ollie Devoto taking over from Sam Hill in the centre.
The Saints, meanwhile, made two changes to their side that won at Worcester last time out.Both came in the pack where Jamie Gibson was added to the back-row, whilst Reece Marshall was a late call-up at hooker after England captain Dylan Hartley withdrew just prior to kick-off with a knee injury.
The late change, however, did little to disrupt the Midlanders, who flew out of the traps in the opening quarter. Just two minutes had elapsed when they broke the game’s deadlock, Francis stealing over by the left posts after Tom Collins and Biggar had scythed through the Chiefs defensive line.
Welsh international Biggar slotted the extras to that score and his own try which followed just minutes later.Again, the lively Collins was involved in the approach work, threatening down the right wing with a strong charge, before the ball was recycled back inside through a series of phases to the fly-half, who barged his way under the posts.
It was no more than the Saints deserved for a bold and adventurous opening blast, but the Chiefs were clearly reeling and needed a remedy to what appeared a Christmas hangover.
Thankfully, Baxter’s side started to find their feet and after Tom O’Flaherty had threatened with a counter raid down the left, it was the muscle of the Exeter pack that started to make their mark.
A succession of penalties allowed them to set up camp five metres out.The tried-and-trusted, catch-and-drive moves ensued, but some stout defence from the Saints held them at bay.
At scrum time, though, Northampton were clearly struggling and when one five-metre obliterated under intense Chiefs pressure, referee Ian Tempest had little option but to run under the home posts for the penalty try.
Up and running, the visitors now had the bit between their teeth and havingbeen held up on the line by a last-gasp tackle from Jamie Gibson, there was to be no stopping Exeter from adding a second, this time through Cordero, who was able to squeeze over in the right-hand corner following a slick offload from Matt Kvesic.Steenson obliged with the testing touchline conversion to level the game up at 14-apiece.
But just as it appeared the Chiefs were at last starting to rule the roost, the visitors shot themselves in the foot by conceding a third converted score just before the break.
Turning the visitors over after they picked from the base of a scrum deep inside their own 22, Northampton cleverly worked a clever dog leg in the middle of the Chiefs midfield to send replacement Dingwall over for the try.
Having to play catch-up once again, the Chiefs were handed a boost when home skipper Alex Waller was sent to the sin-bin by Tempest for yet another scrum penalty, but the visitors could not make their numerical advantage pay, Devoto denied a try by the TV match official who claimed he could not see a clear grounding from the centre under the home posts.
HALF TIME NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 21 EXETER CHIEFS 14
Still a man up on the resumption, it was an encouraging start from the Chiefs in the early exchanges. Joe Simmonds and Cordero both made decent inroads, before the Exeter eight decided to take charge in the close skirmishes.
Sean Lonsdale and Taione, the latter making his first Premiership start since September 2017, made the hard yards through the middle, before England international Moon picked up possession and burrowed his way over the line.Again, Tempest needed clarification on the validity of the score, but this time the officials ruled in favour of the Devonians, who made it a full house with Steenson easy conversion.
Moments later and the Chiefs were at it again, this time Cordero hot-stepping his way around Taqele Naiyaravoro down the right, only for the Fijian to halt the Argentinian speedster with a desperate tap-tackle as he closed in on the home try-line.
The pressure, though, was mounting from Baxter’s side who continued to dominate at scrum time.Northampton continued to cough up a series of penalties, forcing Tempest to warn stand-in skipper Courtney Lawes, but the Chiefs could not turn their pressure into points.
Both sides rang the changes, throwing on fresh muscle from the sidelines, and it was a mistake from Exeter replacement Nic White that allowed Northampton to regain the lead.Looking to feed his back division off a line-out just inside the Saints half, Reinach timed his run to perfection to intercept the Aussie’s pass and race over for the score.
Not for the first time on the night, Tempest went to the TMO for a review of the situation. Subsequent checks followed, checking the positioning of the South African when he set off on his burst, but a quick glance revealed he was well onside and the score was awarded. Biggar landed his fourth conversion of the night to put his side seven up once more.
The score ignited not only many of the capacity crowd, but also the Saints who were now hunting for more reward.Whereas the Chiefs were dominating the third quarter, all of a sudden it was Northampton’s turn.
With the hammer down, the Saints were driving deep into the Chiefs 22, where eventually an illegal dump tackle from Luke Cowan-Dickie resulted in the Exeter hooker being sent to the sidelines for ten minutes. Biggar landed the resultant penalty to make it double trouble for the visitors.
Just as it was in the first half, the Chiefs had to dig deep into their reserves. A penalty to the corner offered them a glorious chance to reduce the deficit, but just as they worked their way to the line, they were denied for holding on, much to the clamour of the natives.
Still the visitors looked to fashion an opening back into the contest, but poor decision-making and some sloppy handling were causing them to concede possession at the vital moment.
As the minutes ticked by, so it seemed the Chiefs may depart the scene empty-handed. However, afforded two late penalties - the second of which was with the clock in the red - this time they made the most of the opening, working Kvesic over for the all-important bonus point try.
That scored - converted by Steenson - was Exeter’s fourth of the night and also brought them back to within three at the close.Just like Harlequins last month, the defeat was at least tempered with the fact that two crucial points had been gleaned.
So with 2018 over for the Chiefs, now it’s onto the New Year where it all begins again, starting with the visit of near neighbours Bristol Bears to Sandy Park.
Northampton Saints: A Tuala; T Collins, P Francis (F Dingwall 6), L Burrell, T Naiyaravoro (F Van Wyk 39-45); D Biggar, C Reinach; A Waller (capt, F Van Wyk 53), R Marshall (J Fish 60, R Marshall 75), P Hill (B Franks 53); D Ribbans, C Lawes; J Gibson (T Wood 55), L Ludlam (H Brüssow 55), T Harrison. Replacements (not used): A Ratuniyarawa, A Mitchell.
Tries - Francis, Biggar, Dingwall, Reinach; Conversions - Biggar (4); Penalty - Biggar
Yellow Card: Waller
Exeter Chiefs: J Simmonds (E Taione 65-72, P Dollman 72); S Cordero, I Whitten, O Devoto (H Slade 55), T O’Flaherty; G Steenson (capt), J Maunder (N White 55); B Moon (A Hepburn 54), E Taione (L Cowan-Dickie 57), H Williams (T Francis 54); M Lees (J Hill 54), S Skinner; S Lonsdale (T Lawday 70), D Armand, M Kvesic.
Tries - Penalty Try, Cordero, Moon, Kvesic; Conversions - Penalty Try, Steenson (3)
Yellow Card: Cowan-Dickie
Referee: I Tempest