Exeter eye summit as Jack Nowell seals bonus-point win over Northampton
Exeter’s story since they were promoted to the Premiership seven years ago has been one of steady ascent and they are approaching the top. Victory next Saturday against a Gloucester side who will have the European Challenge Cup final on their minds would earn the Chiefs a home tie in the play-off semi-final and a likely place at the head of the table, with the leaders Wasps at home to Saracens.
Exeter not only achieved their biggest Premiership victory over Northampton, but dominated throughout. The Saints scored the first and last tries of a one-sided match, but they were reduced to all-out defence. They attempted more than 250 tackles against opponents who kicked as a final option, but their initial resolve faded into submission against remorseless opponents who look bound for the Premiership final for the second successive year.
There is nothing romantic about Exeter, who in extending their unbeaten run in the Premiership to 14 matches harvested a try bonus point for a record eighth successive game. They lost the prop Greg Holmes to a shoulder injury and the flanker Dave Ewers with a knee problem in the first 10 minutes, but did not miss a step on their relentless march upwards.
Northampton may have lost their previous three matches and arrived without their injured captain, Tom Wood, but stubborn, rather than flamboyant, they defended resolutely after taking the lead against the run of play with a JJ Hanrahan interception try, only to be worn down by having to make so many tackles against an Exeter side as territorially dominant playing into the wind as with it.
There were two summer Lions on the field, but only for 20 minutes. Exeter had Jack Nowell, a dynamo of a wing who kept popping up all over the pitch, with the number on his back irrelevant. He scored one try, was denied what would have been his side’s first of six when he lost the ball in the act of touching it down over the line, and created another.
He was in possession when Northampton’s Lion, Courtney Lawes, got his body position wrong in the tackle and his head made contact with the wing’s hip. Lawes, who had been moved from the second row to the back row to cover for Wood’s withdrawal, was treated on the field for four minutes before being taken off for a head-injury assessment, which he failed.
The Northampton director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, said he hoped Lawes, who also injured his shoulder in the challenge, would be fit for Saturday’s final match of the season at home to Harlequins. It will be a battle for a Champions Cup slot, even though this was the Saints’ 12th league defeat of the season. Unable to arrest Exeter’s flow in a match in which the penalty count was low, it became a matter of how long they would hold out.
The answer was 26 minutes. Nowell’s miss was followed immediately by Stuart Townsend knocking on before picking up to touch down. The home side’s pressure told when the flanker Don Armand, spotting the Saints forwards lined up on the left, went right, where he had an unequal grappling contest with two backs, Hanrahan and Harry Mallinder, that his opposite number, Jamie Gibson, was unable to even up, and twisted his way over the line.
Northampton were reduced to 14 men when their wing Ken Pisi deliberately knocked on as Kai Horstmann waited for what would have been a scoring pass. Exeter kicked the penalty to touch and suckered the Saints into defending a driving maul, only for Townsend to seize the ball and send the wing Olly Woodburn into the space vacated by Pisi.
It took Exeter two minutes to extend their 12-7 interval lead. Ian Whitten picked up a loose pass and ran outside the second-row David Ribbans whose tackle was a symptom of his side’s growing fatigue. Nowell’s try was reward for his persistence – the home side’s back three carrying the ball for more than 400 metres between them, rarely receiving the ball in their designated positions.
The replacement centre Sam Hill scored Exeter’s fifth try and Woodburn received Nowell’s pass for his 10th in the Premiership this season – proof of Exeter’s ability to take players from other clubs and turn them from journeymen to assets – before the Saints full-back Ahsee Tuala, whose enthusiasm for tackling waned as the match went on, finished the scoring by sneaking in on the left wing. For a side with title ambitions eight months ago, it was no consolation.
“We left a few tries out there, but we are in a good place mentally,” said the Exeter coach, Ali Hepher, after his side moved level on points with Wasps, but remained second having won fewer matches. “It was good to see Jack Nowell back to his best: we sat him down after the Six Nations, with all the pressure the tournament put on him, and knew we had to manage him. He is back to his bouncing best as we move in to the final month of the season.”