Olly Woodburn personifies the Exeter way. The wing joined the Chiefs last season after failing to establish himself at Bath and has become a try-scoring fixture in a side whose whole continues to add up to even more than the sum of its parts.
His two tries against Northampton took him to 10 in this season’s Premiership at the end of the week, when the supporters’ club had voted him player of the year, and extended the Chiefs’ unbeaten league run to 14 matches – three short of Leicester’s record in the top flight.
While their rivals make headlines with marquee international signings, Exeter find something in players other clubs do not detect and so strong have they become as a group that even a side as gnarled and cohesive as Northampton buckled under their persistent pressure.
The victory, which was achieved with a bonus- point try for a record eighth successive league match, took Exeter level on points with the leaders Wasps before the final round of fixtures on Saturday when the Chiefs play at Gloucester and Wasps entertain Saracens.
Gloucester and Saracens are likely to rest players before European finals the following Friday and Saturday respectively, but Exeter are well placed for a home tie in the play-offs having recovered strongly from a poor start to the season when they won just two of their first seven fixtures.
“We have a lot to play for at Gloucester,” Woodburn said. “They are a big team with awesome players who have reached a European final. They are a good attacking unit and will throw everything at us. It will be another test but we have a big work rate and are putting in huge performances, even if it feels it is getting harder every game.
“I am playing with a smile on my face and it is a good place to be. When I arrived here, I did not see myself winning an award. I just wanted to expand my game and be at a club where I could compete for a place in the team. It has been a brilliant season for me, but I could not do it without my team-mates. Life is really good.”
Northampton scored the first and last tries of the match but in between were forced to defend as Exeter kept the ball in hand and probed for weak spots. They found none initially, but the Saints eventually wilted under pressure so incessant that should the Premiership final this season be a repeat of the showdown against Saracens last May, Exeter are unlikely to freeze again in the opening half as they did on that occasion.
“Last season was different because we started quickly and we got through the latter stages,” the Exeter assistant coach, Ali Hepher, said. “This year there is more of a calmness to the group. We are building nicely and we are comfortable with where we are. All we are saying to the guys is to keep it simple and put in massive actions after massive actions. If we continue to do that, we will come through well.”
Northampton have become used to preparing for the play-offs this decade, but their focus is on a Champions Cup place next season. They face one of their top-six rivals Harlequins at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday at the end of a season in which they have a 50% home record in the league.
They will be without their goal-kicker Stephen Myler, but George North and Louis Picamoles are expected to return while their Lions second-row Courtney Lawes will this week following the concussion return to play protocol.
“We defended well against Exeter, but it took its toll and everyone is now talking about the Quins game,” said the Saints’ director of rugby, Jim Mallinder.