Disappointing Exeter Chiefs lose unbeaten home record to pragmatic Northampton
It was a frustrating new year, rather than a happy one at Sandy Park this weekend, as Exeter Chiefs lost their unbeaten home record in the Aviva Premiership to Northampton Saints.
The highly-competitive nature of the Premiership means that Chiefs' failure to secure a league win in their last three games – or even a losing bonus point on Saturday – will see them slip into the bottom half of the table following this 30-19 loss.
And, although Chiefs could have beaten Saints in the final ten minutes, when there were just four points between the sides, the visitors deserved to become the first top-flight team to beat Exeter at Sandy Park this term.
One of the Chiefs' strengths this season has been their ability to follow team instructions to the letter, doggedly enforcing their game0plan on the opposition with an almost stubborn single-mindedness.
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However, that same quality – together with an unusually high error and penalty count against them – was their downfall this weekend.
When Plan A began to falter, they failed to readjust and take the chances in front of them and frequently played themselves into trouble.
Northampton, meanwhile, were merely functional but played a smarter game at the right times to pull ahead and stay there – moving themselves up to fourth in the Premiership as a result.
The opening few minutes were undeniably positive for Chiefs, with Tom Johnson, Phil Dollman and Ian Whitten all having a run at the Northampton defence.
A break from Luke Arscott in the eighth minute was particularly promising, but, as in the Bath game the previous week, a moment's hesitation as he looked for support saw the move break down shortly after his offload to wing Matt Jess.
Saints were certainly proving capable themselves with the ball in hand. It took some determined work at the breakdown from Chiefs to prevent them scoring.
Chiefs went straight on the attack and won a penalty when flanker Phil Dowson was penalised for not rolling away, giving Steenson an excellent kicking chance inside the Northampton 22. He duly gave Exeter the lead, as a fitting reward for his own confident and assured start to the game.
But then the initially irritating errors from Chiefs proved more costly. Saints turned over possession in midfield and although Chiefs scrambled well, with Whitten recovering a grubber kick into the left corner, his side were unable to clear their lines effectively.
Steenson was under too much pressure to boot the ball away inside his own 22, so he passed on to Arscott, who could only hack it clear, straight into the hands of the
Saints' full-back Ben Foden.
The England man tore straight through the ragged Chiefs defence before setting up wing Ken Pisi for a simple finish in the right corner, converted by Stephen Myler.
The Saints' ten extended that lead with two penalties, following an increasingly disjointed period from Chiefs, with numerous errors.
The situation could have been worse, too. An initial penalty on the Chiefs' 22 from Myler hit the left post and the home were sluggish to react, giving away another penalty, following a knock-on. On another day, it may well have been another try.
Chiefs' forays into the Saints' territory late in the first half were frequently stifled by any means possible, and it was at this point, with just over two minutes left before the break, when referee Greg Garner decided action was required and he sent hooker Dylan Hartley to the sin bin.
Steenson struck his second penalty of the match to bring his side back to within a converted score of Saints' first-half tally before the interval.
Chiefs lost scrum-half Haydn Thomas to an eye injury in the opening minute of second half, but the better news was that Steenson was soon able to kick his third penalty of the afternoon to edge Chiefs closer still.
However, Chiefs' decision to run their way out from within their own 22 soon set them back. Replacement nine Barrett knocked on, and before they knew it, Myler was taking another successful shot at goal.
Chiefs generally looked brighter on the attack, as they did early in the first half, but Saints were happy to concede penalties to prevent Chiefs scoring. This, at least, allowed Steenson an opportunity to bring the deficit back to four points.
But Saints, now back to a full XV and still ahead, gained greater possession and territory as the hour mark approached and were rewarded with a drive try, finished by Soane Tonga'uiha and converted by Myler.
Chiefs can never be faulted for their endeavour and refused to give up on the game. They pressed forward again only to be met by the same cynical, yet professional, wall of men blocking their path.
They did break through eventually when the ball was handed to centre Sireli Naqelevuki, who crashed through for a try converted by Ignacio Mieres.
It was to no avail, however. With just over five minutes remaining, Saints' No.8 GJ Van Velze's touchdown, following another drive, was confirmed via the TMO and that made the game safe for Saints after Myler added the extras.
Tom Hayes made a late run for a losing bonus point, but that came to a disappointing end when the ball went forward from his attempted offload.
The post game thoughts and comments from both Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints supporters. Northampton won 30-19. Footage contains comments from both sets of fans standing shoulder to shoulder!
NOTE: Please disable/mute the audio on the video at the top right hand side of this web page before watching this footage.
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