George Furbank landed a last-gasp penalty to hand Northampton Saints a thrilling 26-24 away victory over Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.
The hosts held a slender 21-17 lead at the interval despite Saints scores from Alex Mitchell and Matt Proctor, plus a James Grayson penalty, with Don Armand, Jack Maunder and Rus Tuima all going over for Exeter.
But although they had to contend with a ten-minute sin-bin for Sam Matavesi, Chris Boyd’s side weathered the storm brilliantly to turn the game around in the closing stages, with Grayson and then Furbank landing clutch kicks from the tee in the second half to earn Northampton a crucial four Gallagher Premiership points.
Saints shot out of the traps in the first minute as Matavesi put Furbank through a gap, but the fullback’s searing 50-metre break ended as Mitchell knocked on at the back of a ruck.
And it was Exeter who opened up an early 14-point lead with two tries in as many minutes; first Armand scrambled over from close range after Chiefs sent a penalty into the corner, then Tom O’Flaherty broke down the right and his grubber-kick through saw Josh Hodge hack on, before Maunder was there to touch down under the posts.
Joe Simmonds landed both conversions, and with the hosts looking to move out of sight, Ludlam prevented another score after 11 minutes as he made a mess of an Exeter driving maul.
But from there Saints began to claw back the gap; first Tom Wood came up with a crucial lineout steal, and with turnover ball, Grayson darted through a gap and chipped over the top – the bouncing ball evaded Northampton’s fly-half and the covering O’Flaherty, meaning Mitchell could scoop up and score, with Grayson adding the extras himself.
Fraser Dingwall kept up the pressure with an enormous hit on Josh Hodge in midfield, before Tom Collins came close to scoring from a Dingwall offload, but the wing just ran out of room on the touchline with Hodge beaten for pace.
After 21 minutes, Saints were level as another stolen lineout from Wood allowed Teimana Harrison to carry hard into traffic. Dingwall then released Proctor and the All Black centre cut inside and evaded a tackle to score.
Grayson again made no mistake with the extras, and 11 minutes later sent Northampton ahead for the first time in the game with a penalty as Exeter were pinged for not releasing.
Saints’ dogged defence came up with multiple stops from close range, as Chiefs kicked several penalties into the corner – but just two minutes before the break, referee Christophe Ridley showed Matavesi a yellow card for a no-arms tackle, and Tuima rumbled over from the subsequent penalty.
Despite being down to 14 men, Saints weathered the storm well until the hooker’s return in the 48th minute – although four minutes later they saw a rolling maul of their own stopped short in the corner.
Simmonds stretched Exeter’s lead to seven points with just over a quarter of the game to play after replacement Juarno Augustus was caught offside, but Chiefs returned the favour with an offside penalty of their own which Grayson duly slotted.
The 71st minute saw Saints close the gap to just a point as – after Grayson had been withdrawn for Tommy Freeman – Northampton built the pressure and Exeter were punished for not rolling away, with stand-in No.10 Furbank taking over kicking duty expertly.
The game looked to be slipping away from the men in Black, Green and Gold as twice inside the last five minutes they flung passes into touch as they looked to make the key break.
But two quickfire penalties with two minutes to go – one won by Augustus as he got over the ball, the other coming when Chiefs entered the subsequent lineout maul from the side – handed Furbank the chance to win the game for Northampton.
And up stepped the England international to slam the tricky kick between the posts from just inside the five-metre line to put Saints 26-24 ahead.
There was still time for late drama as the game had to be restarted, but with Exeter looking to win a penalty inside Northampton territory to snatch away the victory, the TMO spotted a neck roll from Jack Innard on Augustus and – with the clock in the red – that was that.
The four-point win sees Saints sit third on the Premiership ladder after two matches, with a home clash against London Irish on the horizon next Saturday.