Chiefs punished for untimely sins as rampant Saints show no mercy
EXETER Chiefs were reminded of the harsh realities of life at the top end of the Aviva Premiership as they opened their campaign with a crushing defeat on the road.
There was a party atmosphere at Franklin's Gardens as Saints' fans welcomed two of their big summer signings, British and Irish Lions duo George North and Alex Corbisiero, and the Chiefs did nothing to ruin the festivities.
They were left staring down the barrel by a poor first-half display that saw them concede four tries inside the opening 36 minutes and trail 31-6 at the turnaround, and even though they were much improved after the break against a side who no doubt took their foot off the gas, there was much for head coach Rob Baxter to ponder afterwards.
"I thought we got taught a lesson in the first half," said Baxter. "I'm not going to take anything away from Northampton because they were a very clinical side in that first half and a lot more clinical than we were at any stage. They virtually took every opportunity that was out there on the pitch for them.
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"Some of them they created themselves, but others we gifted them and it's frustrating to look at some of the tries we conceded and then see where they came from and the mistakes we made.
"Far too often we gave them easy releases, and as good a team as Northampton are, what you have to do is put them under pressure and make a game of rugby difficult for them.
"There wasn't a lot we did in that first half that made it difficult for them."
Travelling first up to Northampton, one of the hot tips for the Premiership crown, off the back of a home friendly defeat against Glasgow and with a side missing some important players through injury, was always going to be a big ask for the Chiefs.
It was also their first taste of life after stalwart No.8 Richard Baxter, who retired at the end of last season.
Head coach Baxter made only four changes from the starting XV that kicked off the final game of last season against Gloucester, with James the only one of his seven summer signings to feature.
Northampton made their intentions known right from the start, opting for the corner when awarded an early kickable penalty, and their ambition was rewarded with a third-minute try from skipper Dylan Hartley, playing his first top-flight game since returning from the suspension he picked up in last season's Premiership final and which saw him miss the Lions tour.
Fly-half Stephen Myler, who kicked superbly from the tee all afternoon, converted from the touchline.
A Gareth Steenson penalty, after Phil Dowson had been sin-binned for a professional foul at a ruck close to Saints' line, got the Chiefs on the board, before Myler added a penalty for a 10-3 lead.
Saints' second try came from an overthrown Chiefs' line-out inside the Saints half, which resulted in a 70-metre move finished off by Samoan winger Ken Pisi; and four minutes later, a fortunate bounce allowed England full-back Ben Foden to gather his high up-and-under and send in international team-mate Tom Wood for another touchdown.
After Steenson kicked a second penalty, a sweeping home move provided centre George Pisi with the bonus-point fourth try four minutes before the break, and with Myler converting all three scores, it was game over at the interval.
Exeter were much better in the second period, and were aided by a Courtney Lawes yellow card for a no-arms tackle, but they could not turn their pressure into points.
Skipper Dean Mumm eventually got over the whitewash in the 60th minute, but it was little more than a consolation, and when Saints made a rare second-half visit to Exeter territory, a catch-and-drive provided the United States international Samu Manoa with their fifth try, again converted by Myler.
The final scoreboard makes painful reading for Exeter, but there were several positives to take from the game.
Richard Baxter's replacement at No.8, Dave Ewers, impressed, as did Tom Johnson alongside him; new wing signing James looked dangerous when he got ball in hand; and England Under-20 duo Henry Slade and Sam Hill did well after coming off the bench, particularly centre Hill on his Premiership debut, as he lit up the closing stages with a couple of nice breaks and some deft footwork.
It was not a good day at the office for Exeter, in front of watching England coaches Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree, but they should not get too down on themselves.
Two years ago they suffered a record 33-3 Premiership defeat at Northampton in early October, and went on to achieve their best ever fifth-place finish in the league.