Saints 31 Chiefs 34
Northampton Saints 31
Exeter Chiefs 34
Mark Stevens at Franklin’s Gardens
Exeter Chiefs breathed new life into their push for the Gallagher Premiership play-offs, recording another priceless victory on the road.
Whereas last week it was Newcastle Falcons, this time round it was Northampton Saints who paid the penalty late on.
Another last-gasp kick from Joe Simmonds again proved the difference, the Chiefs skipper rounding off a stunning day with the boot, punishing a late indiscretion from Saints No.8 Juarno Augustus.
It capped a superb fightback from the visitors, who having led 17-14 at the break, were then picked off impressively by their hosts with a powerful opening burst to the second half.
Down by nine points entering into the last quarter, it was the sin-binning of Northampton scrum-half Alex Mitchell that ultimately allowed the Chiefs to haul themselves to victory, courtesy of late tries from Jack Yeandle and Olly Woodburn.
Both of those were converted from the right touchline by Simmonds, who had earlier added the extras to scores from Josh Hodge and Dave Ewers, as well as landing two penalties to finish with a perfect record from the tee.
In what was a crucial tussle for both sides, the Saints certainly played their part, bagging scores of their own through Matt Proctor, Tom Collins and Augustus to go alongside kicks from James Grayson and Piers Francis.
It was, however, a day to remember for the Chiefs and their Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, who made only minor tweaks to the side which won narrowly at Newcastle Falcons. Both came in the pack where the visitors were able to draft in some heavyweight reinforcements in the shape of Ewers and Argentinian international Santiago Grondona.
The Saints, meanwhile, were themselves forced into change, one of which happened just prior to kick-off with Karl Wilkins replaced by Augustus. Other switches saw Cornishman Sam Matavesi start at flanker for the first time; George Furbank moved to full-back; Collins came in on the wing, whilst Grayson was afforded his first start at fly-half in months.
However, all of them could only watch on as the Chiefs came out firing on a glorious afternoon in the East Midlands. A mistake from Mitchell from the kick-off was almost swallowed up by Olly Woodburn, whilst some industrious carries almost brought early reward.
It was encouraging stuff from the Devonians, who thought they had broke the game’s deadlock on eight minutes when Tom O’Flaherty picked off a loose Saints pass to race half the field and under the posts. Sadly for the Chiefs flyer, the officials had spotted Sam Maunder pulling back Alex Coles earlier in the play and the score was chalked off.
Instead, the Saints were awarded a penalty just inside the Exeter half - and up stepped Grayson to drill a superb effort between the posts at the Barwell Stand End.
Home cheers proved short-lived, however, as within minutes the Chiefs were back on level terms, Simmonds slotting a routine penalty from in front of the home posts after Matavesi had been deemed to enter from the side of a ruck.
With conditions perfect for running rugby, both sides were using their fleet-footed runners to make the territorial gains. O’Flaherty, Woodburn and Hodge were at the heart of things for the Chiefs, while on the opposite side Grayson was lead conductor, pulling the strings on a variety of home attacks.
The young playmaker restored Northampton’s lead with a second penalty, only for the Chiefs to hit back once again. Having won a penalty inside their own half, Simmonds drilled his side deep behind enemy lines. With a shortened line-out routine, the ball was worked off the top into the path of Ewers, whose hulking frame propelled his side forward at a rate of knots.
Working the ball to the outside, it was Simmonds who offered possession to Hodge on the burst. Still with plenty to do, the full-back stepped back onto his left foot, before applying the after burners and scorching clear of the home cover to score the game’s opening try.
Annoyed at the ease in which the Chiefs had penetrated their defences, the Saints countered back almost immediately when Alex Mitchell sniped off the back of a ruck, linked with Alex Coles, who in turn bust a tackle before offloading to Proctor, who was able to squeeze over in the corner for the score, which Grayson converted to ensure maximum reward.
The bonkers, end-to-end nature of the contest showed no sign of abating, as just shy of half time the Chiefs were back on the offensive. Again using their powerful pack to do the leg work from a close-range line-out, it was only a matter of time before they worked the opening for Ewers to bulldoze his way over for the converted score.
HALF TIME NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 13 EXETER CHIEFS 17
After such an entertaining first half, no one was really expecting the second half to live up to the same hype. Well, the Saints had clearly not bought into that thought, producing an attacking storm that was as ferocious as anything thrown up by Eunice and Franklin in recent weeks.
Just two minutes had elapsed when the hosts carved an opening for skipper Fraser Dingwall midway inside his own half. With ball in hand, the Northampton centre brushed aside the attentions of Simmonds, before drawing in Tom Hendrickson and Hodge, and offloading to Collins who was able to sprint unopposed under the sticks for the try.
Grayson bagged the extras to that score, before extending his side’s lead with a penalty after the Chiefs were pulled up for infringing at a ruck in front of their own posts by referee Craig Maxwell-Keys.
That quick-fire double certainly rocked the Chiefs, but the Saints smelt blood and were keen to land the knockout blow. With the hosts bossing the scrums up until that point, it was from an Exeter scrum on their own 22, that the hosts were able to shunt their counterparts up into the air. Initially it looked like Maxwell-Keys had awarded a penalty, but he allowed play to go on and Northampton pounced, Augustus picking up the ball and bursting through for a third try.
Exeter coaches had seen enough and quickly turned to their bench, drafting on Jack Yeandle and Marcus Street to help shore up the scrum, whilst Jack Maunder and Harvey Skinner were added to the back division. It was a shrewd decision as not only did it rectify the set-piece issues, but it also helped bring a renewed vigour to the Exeter game plan.
Having recovered from the whirlwind assault from the Saints, the Chiefs slowly started to rediscover their rhythm. The forwards started carrying harder, whilst behind the backs started to make inroads with every carry they started to make.
Grondona thought he had reduced the arrears when he appeared to sneak over from five metres out, but the officials were unsure and wanted further clarification. Numerous TV replays were viewed, but the decision went against the visitors, even though the BT Sport team felt otherwise in some quite vociferous remarks.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to press hard and when home scrum-half Mitchell saw yellow for a deliberate knockdown, they sensed the opportunity was there for them to strike. Indeed, it didn’t take them long to make their numerical advantage pay, sustained pressure finally rewarded with a score in the corner for Yeandle.
Simmonds slotted a quite brilliant touchline conversion, before he turned provider to Exeter’s bonus point score just five minutes later. Big carries from O’Flaherty, Hepburn and Jannes Kirsten got the Chiefs moving forward, before the ball was worked back to the Exeter No.10. With time and space, he looked up, before drilling a sumptuous cross-field kick into the air.
It was a pre-planned move, but it was delivered masterfully as Woodburn plucked the ball out of the air, before dotting down to scenes of wild celebration amongst the Travelling Tribe. Simmonds, just as he done earlier, again hit the target with another fantastic conversion and the Chiefs were up by three.
Northampton were far from finished and having pinned the Chiefs back from the restart, great work from James Fish saw him capitalise on some indecision between Hodge and Jack Maunder to win a penalty a metre inside the Exeter half. For some reason Grayson wasn’t called upon, so up stepped Francis to strike over the kick.
Given what both sides had offered in a titanic tussle, both would probably have accepted a share of the spoils at that point. The Chiefs, however, know what it takes to reach the latter stages of the season and with one final throw of the dice, it was from another mazy run by O’Flaherty that they were able to win the match-winning penalty.
Augustus was adjudged the guilty culprit, much to the protestations of the home faithful, but it mattered not to Simmonds who made no mistake with his final shot at the target. It was master marksmanship from the Exeter ace and sealed what could yet prove a vital victory in Exeter’s season.
Saints: G Furbank; C Skosan, M Proctor (P Francis 60), F Dingwall (capt), T Collins (T James 63); J Grayson, A Mitchell; E Iyogun (A Waller 50), M Haywood (J Fish 62), E Painter (P Hill 50); D Ribbans, A Ratuniyarawa (B Nansen 60); A Coles, S Matavesi (JJ Tonks 63), J Augustus. Replacement (not used): A Moon.
Tries - Proctor, Collins, Augustus; Conversions - Grayson (2); Penalties - Grayson (3), Francis
Yellow Card: Mitchell
Chiefs: J Hodge; O Woodburn, I Whitten, T Hendrickson (H Skinner 50), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), S Maunder (J Maunder 57); A Hepburn, J Innard (J Yeandle 49), P Schickerling (M Street 49); J Kirsten, D Jenkins; D Ewers, R Capstick, S Grondona. Replacements: (not used): J Kenny, L Pearson, M Norey, F Cordero
Tries - Hodge, Ewers, Yeandle, Woodburn; Conversions - J Simmonds (4); Penalties - J Simmonds (2)
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys