Exeter Chiefs' return to winning ways could prove invaluable when Premiership resumes
Exeter Chiefs' LV= Cup campaign may be over despite their 28-19 victory over Northampton Saints, but the result at Sandy Park this weekend could still be significant as the season heads into its most crucial phase.
The Aviva Premiership resumes on Friday with a trip to Sale Sharks for Chiefs and they can take a measure of confidence, having ended a nagging six-game run without a win.
Admittedly, many of those matches against some of the best sides at home and abroad brought only narrow defeats, but the manner of this latest performance – with a much changed line-up – will reassert the belief they can come through those challenges.
They will feel as though fine margins that separate many of the sides vying for the top-six and top-four positions can fall in the Chiefs' favour again.
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As much as those within the Chiefs' hierarchy say a run of wins or losses never affects their self-belief, beating Saints with such authority will resonate through the entire club.
The Devon club will only play another four matches at home. They will need to be battle-hardened on daunting away games at Saracens, Harlequins, Worcester and Wasps. But as the grounds firm up, their creative instincts will need to be just as sharp. Saturday's victory showed they have players with those qualities in abundance.
Full-back Jack Nowell has already demonstrated his ability this season, both in the Cup and the Premiership. His try against Saints was just reward for another excellent display.
Likewise, new signing Watisoni Votu on his first home appearance for Chiefs. The try-scoring Fijian wing lifted his new club after a slightly scrappy opening to Saturday's game.
Chiefs took the ball into the Saints' 22 on two occasion only to lose it in contact. The visitors, for their part, were content to hoof it clear – sometimes straight into touch. The tempo changed when Votu's pace and strength took through the Saints' defence.
Once Votu was grounded inside the Saints' 22, hooker Jack Yeandle was fed the ball at pace and came up just short. Scrum-half Will Chudley went even closer before flanker Ben White smashed his way over the try line, just to the left of the posts. Fly-half Ignacio Mieres added the extras.
It was more fine work, this time from the Chiefs' centres Ian Whitten and Josh Tatupu that created a try-scoring opportunity for the full-back Nowell.
Whitten's powerful run broke through the Saints' line and Tatupu made up the ground in support, taking the ball towards the left corner where Nowell was available to apply the finish with a speedy burst towards the corner for an unconverted try.
Those two bits of play, in particular, gave the home side confidence to press for more and there was a greater purpose in everything they did.
Every ball carry was making good ground and when numerous good phases got Chiefs within range, Votu got the try his first-half performance deserved from close range with Mieres adding the extras.
The Argentinian added a penalty as the Chiefs continued to pile on the points.
The only disappointment for his side was that Northampton's only meaningful break into Chiefs' 22 led to a try when prop Alex Waller was driven over in the left corner for an unconverted score.
However, even that setback still meant the Chiefs took a 17-point advantage into the half-time break.
Initially, it was still Nowell and Votu who were impressing most early in the second half. The former with his all-round game and the latter with his through his defensive discipline, chasing back during a Ben Foden break to intercept his pass out wide to save a likely try for the visitors.
Five replacements for Saints – Soane Tonga'uiha, Samu Manoa, Phil Dowson, Lee Dickson and Stephen Myler – changed the pattern of the game within ten minutes of the restart.
Saints' drives for the line were pulled down by Chiefs, resulting in a yellow card forWhite and Saints scored almost immediately.
It was scrum-half Dickson applying the finish to another powerful move – Stephen Myler added the conversion.
Mieres mitigated that by booting two penalties to extend Chiefs' lead back to 16 points before White returned to the field with ten minutes remaining.
Despite the insurmountable gap in the scores, it was Northampton who ended the game the stronger side for the most part, as the visitors kicked a number of penalties in the corner.
The pressure told when Will Carrick-Smith earned himself a yellow card for offside, in his desperation to steal back possession.
Saints set up just outside the Chiefs try line and Dickson sniped over for his second try with Myler quickly adding the conversion to create a tension at Sandy Park in the final five minutes – the scores now just nine points apart.
Chiefs still wanted a four-try bonus point. Jack Yeandle led a break with Mieres in support but the move fell short.
However, this win could turn out to be more valuable than four LV= Cup Pool One points would suggest.