Northampton Saints were not able to overcome Aviva Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs at Franklin’s Gardens, as they went down 35-14 despite an improved defensive display.
The hosts gave as good as they got in the first half, with Ahsee Tuala crossing off the back of a fine lineout move and Piers Francis converting to make it 11-7 at the break, with Saints unlucky not to go in ahead after heavy pressure on the Chiefs line at the end of the half.
But Exeter’s strength up front paid dividends after half-time, with the visitors running in three second-half tries to earn a bonus point – although Saints' replacement scrum-half Cobus Reinach did snipe through for a consolation score.
The game began with thunderous tackles flying in left, right and centre with Saints initially defending well, only to concede a penalty at the breakdown and allow Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson to open the scoring from the tee.
Saints’ response was almost perfect, with Api Ratuniyarawa and Harry Mallinder making fantastic breaks, but Chiefs held their nerve and came away unscathed before punishing Northampton on the break.
Will Chudley gathered his own chip over the top off the back of a scrum to score a fantastic solo try for Chiefs, who then nearly doubled their score moments later, only for Mallinder to nudge Olly Woodburn into touch just inches from the line.
Tuala then hit back and scored the first try of the afternoon for Saints, as a well-worked backs move left Exeter short of defence and now only 8-7 ahead after an intense first 20 minutes.
But Chiefs kicked their second penalty to extend their lead entering the last few minutes of the first half, and despite late pressure before the whistle, Saints could not close the gap any further.
Exeter got straight back to scoring after the break, with Steenson slotting his third penalty of the match after just three second-half minutes.
And the Chiefs’ forwards began mounting pressure deep in Saints territory, with Ben Foden seeing yellow for after persistent infringements, leaving Saints down to 14 with 20 minutes still to go.
Sam Simmonds then popped out of the maul and crossed the line to push the champions 21-7 ahead with time running out for the Saints, and no sooner had Foden returned from the sin-bin than Francois van Wyk also saw yellow with Northampton’s scrum under pressure.
Several reset scrums later, Thomas Waldrom made it three tries for the Devon side from close range, although Reinach then gave Saints hope of a comeback after dancing through the Exeter defence to dash for the line.
Francis was quick to take the conversion with the hosts sniffing a losing bonus point, but with the last play of the game it was Exeter who secured the extras, Jack Yeandle stretching for the line to score the Chiefs’ fourth.
SAINTS: Mallinder; Tuala, Horne, Burrell, Foden; Francis, Groom; Ma’afu, Hartley (capt), Ford-Robinson, Paterson, Ratuniyarawa, Lawes, Gibson, Harrison
Replacements: Haywood, van Wyk, Hill, Ribbans, Wood, Reinach, Stephenson, Pisi
CHIEFS: Slade; Nowell, Whitten, Hill, Woodburn; Steenson (capt), Chudley; Moon, Cowan-Dickie, Williams, Skinner, Hill, Ewers, Armand, Simmonds
Replacements: Yeandle, Rimmer, Holmes, Lees, Waldrom, Townsend, Simmonds, Short
7’ CHIEFS Penalty Steenson 0-3
13’ CHIEFS Try Chudley 0-8
20’ SAINTS Try Tuala, Conversion Francis 7-8
32’ CHIEFS Penalty Steenson 7-11
HALF TIME Saints 7-11 Chiefs
43’ CHIEFS Penalty Steenson 7-14
60’ CHIEFS Try Simmonds, Conversion Steenson 7-21
74’ CHIEFS Try Waldrom, Conversion Steenson 7-28
77’ SAINTS Try Reinach, Conversion Francis 14-28
80’ CHIEFS Try Hill, Conversion Slade 14-35
FULL TIME Saints 14-35 Chiefs