Ollie Sleightholme’s remarkable charge-down with the clock in the red ensured two second-half Piers Francis penalties were enough to seal a dramatic victory for Northampton Saints away at Exeter Chiefs.
It was a nail-biting end to an otherwise attritional contest in the mud at Sandy Park, where the Men in Black Green and Gold held on to win 12-13 – their first win in Devon since 2014, and a victory which sees Chris Boyd’s side break into the Gallagher Premiership’s top four.
Shaun Adendorff’s first-half try was cancelled out by Jack Yeandle for the reigning league and European champions, but eight points from centre Francis off the tee combined with a dogged defensive display and set-piece dominance saw Saints home.
Sam Skinner’s late try in the corner did offer Joe Simmonds an opportunity to win the game with a touchline conversion, but Sleightholme and several Northampton chasers were quick to spot the Exeter out-half had started his kicking motion, rushing up to hack the ball off the tee and prevent the kick that might have swing the game the way of the Chiefs.
Despite playing into a gale-force wind and spending much of the opening period defending inside their own 22, Saints struck first in the 11th minute. After Ehren Painter won a penalty at the scrum, George Furbank’s superb shot into the corner allowed Sam Matavesi to hit Dave Ribbans at the lineout.
A fierce rolling maul ended with No.8 Adendorff diving over the line – his fourth score in three matches – and Francis converted for 7-0.
With the conditions against them, that was to be one of the few times Saints entered the Exeter 22 in the first-half. Instead, plenty of dogged defensive work was required to prevent the hosts from striking a return blow.
Time and again the defensive efforts frustrated Exeter. Painter and Alex Waller won further scrum penalties to continue Saints’ good form in the set-piece, while Ribbans proved to be a disrupting presence at the lineout.
Adendorff also showed his ability to get in over the ball at the breakdown, while an Api Ratuniyarawa tackle on the Saints line forced a spill from Will Witty while reaching out to score. Dave Ewers was held-up over the line not long after.
The pressure did ultimately tell on the half-hour mark. After winning a scrum penalty under the posts, Exeter skipper Jack Yeandle took it quickly before wriggling his way over the line.
The closest either side got to taking the lead before the break was when Ollie Devoto looked certain to win the race to a bouncing ball in the Saints in-goal area. Sleightholme showed off his searing pace to prevent what looked like a certain score, coming out of seemingly nowhere to get to the ball first and secure a 22 drop-out.
Despite their advantage playing with the wind in the second-half, the visitors’ task was made harder when, fllowing repeated team infringements, George Furbank was sent to the bin for failing to roll away close to his own line.
Saints did well to come out of the ten minutes unscathed; replacement Nick Auterac winning another scrum penalty inside the 22 proved to be crucial in relieving pressure while a man down.
The scrum dominance continued when Saints were restored to full complement, and it nearly allowed the visitors to retake the lead. Another penalty won against the head offered Francis an opportunity from the tee just outside the 22, but the centre’s effort hit the post in the swirling wind.
Francis did make amends less than five minutes later. Following a Ewers shoulder-charge on Ribbans, the successful kick from the ten-metre line put Saints into the lead heading into the last ten minutes. He added another penalty moments later when Exeter failed to roll away to stretch the lead to six.
Skinner’s score in the corner in the 80th minute did lead to a nail-biting conclusion, but the error off the tee from Simmonds ensured that Saints secured their fourth win on the bounce ahead of next weekend’s clash at home with Bath.