Exeter are dark horses no more. This six-try evisceration of a hopelessly outclassed Northampton was a performance of champions. They enter the Premiership play-offs less coming up on the rails than setting a frightening pace out front, daring the rest of the field to stay with them.
This was their seventh consecutive bonus-point victory, a Premiership record, that moves them joint top of the league. Another five points next week away to Gloucester will in all likelihood propel Exeter ahead of Wasps to finish the season atop the Premiership. However many times it has been written before the scale of the achievement since winning promotion from the Championship in 2010 rarely ceases to amaze.
Still there is room for improvement. As comprehensive as the scoreline was, Exeter left at least another five tries on the field largely because of their unfortunate habit of spilling the ball in the vicinity of the tryline. The outstanding Olly Woodburn, who was presented with the supporters’ player of the season award after the match, weighed in with two tries. The other scores coming from Dom Armand, Ian Whitten, Sam Hill and Jack Nowell, who demonstrated exactly the type of form that merited his Lions selection.
“We left some tries out there,” Ali Hepher, the backs coach, said.
“Certainly we would have liked to have scored a few more in the first half and in the second half we were still switching a little bit in the the coaches’ box. Overall we were really pleased with the way the guys played. They kept coming, kept coming and kept coming. That was the mental attitude we needed.
“We don’t fear anyone. We have beaten everyone, but we know everyone can beat us as well. I sense now they are building as a team. There’a bit more to come from them. We are comfortable where we are.”
Northampton will be relieved to escape with a few shreds of dignity intact. JJ Hanrahan gave them an unlikely lead but the rest of the match was spent in reverse. There was no lack of commitment in their defence but that took a heavy toll. Lions lock Courtney Lawes went off with a concussion and, in the second half, players were dropping so frequently that the Northampton physio may have covered more ground than any other individual.
“I thought we were well beaten today,” Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby, said. “I thought we defended quite well, but it took its toll, and it took its toll in attack because whenever we did get the ball we just couldn’t keep hold of it and didn’t have that physicality needed to break down their defence.”
Depending upon Gloucester’s result against Bath on Sunday, Northampton’s clash against Harlequins next week looks set to be a straight shootout for automatic Champions Cup qualification. Mallinder hopes to have Lawes, who also hurt his shoulder, involved while wing George North and No 8 Louis Picamoles should also be back.
You would struggle to find a more one-sided 40 minutes in the entire season than the first half at Sandy Park. At one stage late in the half, Northampton had made six times as many tackles as the home team.
Yet Exeter made a horrible start. Ollie Devoto rushed a pass in midfield and Hanrahan pounced on the intercept to race under the posts with five minutes gone. Prop Greg Holmes and flanker Dave Ewers were also lost to injury inside the opening quarter. Frustration continued to mount as Nowell had a try scrubbed off by the television match official, David Grashoff.
Northampton were manning the barricades in defence. A turnover here and a holding-on penalty there provided brief windows of relief. The pressure was unrelenting and eventually it told, although Mallinder was hugely frustrated at the helping hand they provided to Exeter.
The reprieve granted by Nowell’s knock-on was immediately wasted as from the resulting scrum, Luther Burrell knocked on Sam Dickinson’s loose pass.
Five-metre scrum to Exeter. The Chiefs pack got the shove on, Nowell made ground from first phase and then the forwards took over resulting in Armand being driven over.
Exeter’s second try was equally galling from a Northampton perspective.
Being awarded a penalty on the halfway line, Northampton opted to take the tap only to be turned over within a couple of phases. Exeter immediately went for the kill. Devoto made the initial incision. Then the ball came left where Woodburn’s attempted pass to Turner was knocked on by Ken Pisi, who was duly sin-binned.
With the man advantage, Exeter kicked to the corner. Northampton held up the initial lineout drive but scrum-half Stuart Townsend darted down the unattended blindside and fed Woodburn who dived for the corner.
By hook or by crook, Northampton saw out the rest of half yet within two minutes of the restart, Exeter had their breathing space after Whitten slipped through Jamie Gibson’s tackle.
At this point it became a case of damage limitation and that a cricket score was not posted was largely because of a severe case of white-line fever.
Ben Foden knocked on one and intercepted another Exeter pass on his own tryline. Harry Mallinder somehow stripped Luke Cowan-Dickie of the ball on his own tryline while Turner beat Foden in a footrace for a loose ball only to kick the ball out of play.
Nowell did register the bonus-point try twisting out Juan-Pablo Estelles to ground the ball on the second attempt. Replacement centre Hill scored the try of the day cutting a great line through the Northampton midfield before scorching past Foden while Nowell turned provider for Woodburn to score his second. Northampton registered the final score through full-back Ashee Tuala but they were either too exhausted or too ashamed to muster any form of celebration.
Scoring sequence: 0-5, Hanrahan try; 0-7, Hanrahan con; 5-7, Armand try; 7-7, Steenson con; 12-7, Woodburn try, 17-7, Whitten try; 22-7, Nowell try; 27-7, Hill try; 29-7, Steenson con; 34-7, Woodburn try; 36-7, Simmonds con; 37-12, Tuala try.
Exeter Chiefs: L Turner; J Nowell, I Whitten, O Devoto (S Hill 55), O Woodburn; G Steenson (J Simmonds, 70), S Townsend (W Chudley 52); Rimmer (B Moon 49), J Yeandle (L Cowan-Dickie 55), Holmes (H Williams 6), D Dennis, G Parling, D Ewers (J Salvi 10), D Armand (O Atkins, 65), K Horstmann.
Northampton Saints: A Tuala; K Pisi (JP Estelles, 52), L Burrell, H Mallinder, B Foden (N Tuitavake, 68); J Hanrahan, N Groom (L Dickson 60); A Waller (C Ma’afu), D Hartley (M Haywood 60), K Brookes (G Denman 57), C Day (A Ratuniyarawa 59), D Ribbans, C Lawes (S Dickinson, 20), J Gibson, T Harrison Sin-bin: K Pisi (32).
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU).