In the quintessential game of two halves Exeter came out on top at Sandy Park.
Few people, whether in the stands or watching on TV, would have foreseen the eventual outcome when they headed for their half-time refreshments, such had been Saints’ dominance in the opening 40 minutes.
They had been patient in defence, powerful at the breakdown and had been rewarded with two tries in attack, the second of which will be a candidate for try of the season.
But after the break it was all Exeter, and if one statistic would tell the whole story it was the penalty count, with the hosts receiving 11 decisions to the Saints’ none. This handed the Chiefs with all the momentum they would need to launch wave after wave of attack on the visitors’ line, and though it will be scant consolation given that Saints headed up the M5 empty-handed, in the cold light of day they can take credit from the game eventually being decided by kicks at goal, not tries.
To people who tuned in only for the second half it would be scarcely believable that, aside from the opening 10 minutes, it was all Saints in the first half. But while the visitors would score the game’s opening tries it was Exeter who got the first points from Gareth Steenson. The home faithful received the kick warmly, but supporters, players and coaches alike were probably seething that their men did not turn what had been an outstanding opportunity into a full five-pointer.
Centre partners Ian Whitten and Henry Slade would have been kicking themselves the most, the former putting a poor pass to the other which would have otherwise brought a certain score. There was worse to come for both, too, with Whitten forced into leaving the action early through injury and Slade rushing a kick which brought Saints’ opening try.
Exeter’s pack had won back a Saints throw five metres from the hosts’ line, but the swarming defence forced Slade into the mistake and the visitors made him pay. Ben Foden ran the ball back, and after a couple of phases Ahsee Tuala had sucked in enough defenders to create the space for Lee Dickson to dive over in the left corner.
There was a better score to come later in the half, and these tries sandwiched some intelligent play from the Saints. They were choosing their options well, not least when and when not to attack the Chiefs at the breakdown to win penalties - Paul Hill in particular standing out in this regard - and when to keep the ball in hand or send play downfield with the kicking game.
That’s not to say that Exeter did not have their half-chances, probing patiently just before the half-hour for an opening that did not come. Saints’ defence was as composed as the attack and when the opportunity presented itself to turn possession over they duly did, and within a flash were not just at the other end of the field but over for try number two.
Foden again was the catalyst, stepping Slade to get onto the front foot. JJ Hanrahan and Dickson were in support, but it was the excellent handling from James Craig, Mikey Haywood and Jamie Gibson which stood out in putting Ken Pisi over for the score.
It was an outstanding score from the Saints, and Hanrahan successfully nailed the extras to make the most of the try. And there could have been even more to come before half-time had Slade’s rush defence not forced George Pisi’s tapped pass into going forward to the unmarked Foden on his right.
It was the last chance of the first half, and the supporters at that end of the ground got their money’s worth with the first serious opportunity of the second, too. Harry Williams made a big burst through the middle and when the ball went right hooker Jack Yeandle stepped inside three defenders to come within a metre of the whitewash.
Mikey Haywood killed the ball to receive a yellow card, and while Saints did superbly to hold out after Exeter went to the corner the hosts drove from their next lineout to suck in defenders and play through enough phases to create space for Woodburn to crash over in the right corner.
It was no more than Exeter deserved for their pressure, and when Steenson landed a penalty five minutes later it made it a one-point ball game. Slade missed a 54-metre effort on the hour, but the hosts’ chances kept on coming with wave after wave of attack.
Nevertheless Saints’ defence held, even though they received a massive break when Slade fumbled what would have been a scoring pass to Woodburn on the right wing. And had Gibson not made a crucial tap-tackle on Sam Hill the replacement would have been over.
But these were rare pluses for the visitors, for whom nothing else came off. James Wilson saw what would have been a long clearance kick fade straight into touch from outside his own 22, and Kahn Fotuali’i was forced to concede a five-metre scrum after Saints had won a Chiefs throw against the head.
Had Saints held out until the final whistle it would have been a win for the ages, but points seemed inevitable, and with three Steenson penalties in the space of 10 minutes Exeter had not just gone in front but denied Saints even the consolation of a point.
The last of these came two minutes from time, but there was still time for late drama, George Pisi having a try ruled out by TMO Geoff Warren, who ruled that Gibson had obstructed Ollie Atkins while challenging for the kick off.
It was a marginal decision at best, but it summed up the second half, and Saints will have to regroup next week before welcoming Harlequins to Franklin’s Gardens on Easter Sunday.
EXETER Turner; Woodburn, Slade, Whitten, Short; Steenson, Lewis; Moon, Yeandle (capt), Williams, Atkins, Parling, Ewers, Armand, Waldrom
Subs - Taione, Hepburn, Rimmer, Stevenson, Salvi, Chudley, Hill, Bodilly
SAINTS Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Mallinder, Tuala; Hanrahan, Dickson (capt); A Waller, Haywood, Hill, Craig, Day, Harrison, Gibson, Fisher
Subs - Marshall, E Waller, Denman, Matfield, Wood, Fotuali’i, Myler, Wilson
REFEREE Greg Garner
11mins EXETER Pen Steenson 3-0
13mins SAINTS Try Dickson 3-5
17mins SAINTS Miss pen Hanrahan
33mins SAINTS Try K Pisi Con Hanrahan 3-12
HALF-TIME EXETER 3 SAINTS 12
48mins SAINTS Yellow card Haywood
51mins EXETER Try Woodburn 8-12
56mins EXETER Pen Steenson 11-12
60mins EXETER Miss pen Slade
68mins EXETER Pen Steenson 14-12
73mins EXETER Pen Steenson 17-12
78mins EXETER Pen Steenson 20-12
FULL-TIME EXETER 20 SAINTS 12