A stunning second half display from the Exeter Chiefs saw them make a rampant return to winning ways in the Aviva Premiership. Rob Baxter’s side notched up 21 unanswered points during the second period to secure a 30-9 victory over visiting Northampton Saints, who have now lost six league fixtures on the bounce.
Tries from skipper Tom Hayes, centre Sireli Naqelevuki and flanker Tom Johnson were the highlights of Exeter’s eighth league victory of the season and help the Premiership newcomers avenge their earlier defeat by the Saints at Franklin’s Gardens back in October.
Fly-half Gareth Steenson kicked the remainder of the home side’s points with three penalties and three conversions, whilst all the Saints could muster in terms of a response were three first half penalties from Stephen Myler.
Having come unstuck last time out at home to Bath, the Chiefs were forced into three changes for this latest outing. The first came in the pack where Chad Slade took over from James Hanks in the second row, whilst behind Phil Dollman replaced Jason Shoemark and Fijian powerhouse Nemani Nadolo was handed a first-ever Premiership start in place of Matt Jess.
The Saints, who arrived in Devon having lost their last five league games, also made changes to their side from that which lost 18-16 to Gloucester. Joe Ansbro came in on the wing means Bruce Reihana was switched to full-back with Greig Tonks the man to miss out. Up front the sole change saw England international Courtney Lawes return ahead of lock Dan Vickerman.
With personnel in place and the weather glorious for running rugby, it was the visitors who started the brighter as they took the lead inside five minutes thanks to an early penalty from fly-half Myler.
The lead proved shortlived, however, as within three minutes parity was restored when Steenson, Exeter’s very own No.10, administered a kick of his own after Northampton were penalised from infringing at a ruck in front of their own posts.
In a nip-and-tuck opening quarter in which both packs fought out a decent arm-wrestle in both the set-piece and the loose, it was the Saints who reclaimed their lead when Myler fired over a second successful kick after James Scaysbrook had been singled out by referee JP Doyle for pulling down a driving maul.
Myler had the chance to add to his tally moments later when the Chiefs forwards against fell foul of Irishman Doyle, but this time the Saints playermaker screwed his effort wide of the left post and the chance was lost.
At the other end Steenson also saw a shot at the target float wide of the mark after Jim Mallinder’s side had strayed offside in midfield.
It was, though, the Saints who finished the first period the stronger, Myler threatened to claim the first try of the game on 39 minutes when he intercepted a pass from Luke Arscott on halfway. However, as he raced clear of the cover, Dollman cantered after the lone runner, eventually hauling him to the deck just metres from the whitewash.
Although that threat was repelled, the Saints stretched their lead with the final action of the half when Myler converted a third penalty from deep inside the home 22 after the Chiefs were adjudged to have handled the ball on the deck.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 3 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 9
As Baxter departed his seat in the stands at the break, he knew his side were still very much in contention, but needed the odd tweak to get their motors fully up and running.
Whatever was said by the Exeter leader, it clearly had the desired effect as the Chiefs were a much transformed unit on the resumption. Steenson potted over two penalties inside the first ten minutes to level the tie, before the home side struck with devastating effect.
Sensing they had the edge up front, the home pack combined to drive themselves deep into enemy territory. Although initial raids were held at bay by some smart defensive work from the visitors, the Chiefs kept recycling, creating the space wide on the left for Johnson to offload to the unmarked Hayes, who made no mistake from five metres out for his first try of the season.
Steenson obliged with the testing touchline conversion and they repeated the feat two minutes later as the Fijian flyers Nadolo and Naqelevuki linked down the left touchline. Nadolo latched onto a delicately crafted chip from Haydn Thomas before he shipped the ball into the path of his compatriot, whose dart down the line added try number two.
With a 14-point buffer in tow, the Chiefs looked to push on in search of further reward. The Saints, however, had other ideas and with England international Shane Geraghty introduced from the bench, they attempted to find a way back into the contest.
Geraghty, whose younger brother Kieran was once a Chief, showed a neat turn of speed on one break-out to cause some concern, but the Chiefs were miserly in defence. Wave upon wave of attacks followed from the Saints, but there was to be no way through.
Exeter’s stubborness was impressive and when once final attack broke down under the extreme pressure, Johnson latched onto the loose ball to gallop over half the field to score converted try number three under the posts.
With the game effectively over as a contest, the only question now was could the Chiefs muster up a fourth score and with it a bonus point. Nadolo, Arscott and replacement Jess all threatened to go close, but in the end they had to settle for just the four-point success.
Chiefs: L Arscott; N Nadolo, P Dollman, S Naqelevuki (M Jess 70), N Sestaret; G Steenson (I Mieres 72), H Thomas (J Poluleuligaga 61); B Sturgess (B Moon 62), N Clark (S Alcott 70), C Budgen (I Elosu 72); T Hayes (capt), C Slade (D Gannon 70); T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, R Baxter (J Phillips 70).
Tries – Hayes, Naqelevuki, Johnson; Conversions – Steenson (3); Penalties – Steenson (3)
Yellow Card: Sestaret
Saints: B Reihana; J Ansbro (S Geraghty 53), J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler (G Tonks 72), S Commins; S Tonga’uiha (A Waller 70), B Sharman (A Long 70), B Mujati (T Mercey 69); C Lawes, M Sorenson (C Day 69); C Clark, P Dowson (capt), M Easter. Replacements (not used): A Eustace, R Powell.
Penalties – Myler (3)
Referee: JP Doyle
Touch Judges: A Biggs & D Rose
4th Official: R Baileff