Northampton Saints qualified for the Gallagher Premiership’s semi-finals for the first time since 2015, despite going down to league leaders Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.
The visitors were level at 21-21 after a rollercoaster first half which saw the lead change hands several times – with Piers Francis, Rory Hutchinson and then Cobus Reinach all scoring for Northampton.
But while Chiefs pulled away after the break with Matt Kvesic, Dave Dennis and Luke Cowan-Dickie all crashing over from close range, the men in Black, Green and Gold will advance to the Premiership’s knock-out stages courtesy of Wasps’ win over Harlequins.
Saints got off to a lightning start with Francis scoring after just four minutes; Hutchinson won the ball back in the air before Exeter strayed offside and the centre made the penalty advantage count as he released Jamie Gibson down the right flank with a super pass over the top.
Gibson found Ahsee Tuala who was hauled down just short, but there was Francis to finish off from the back of the ruck, with Biggar making no mistake with the conversion.
Exeter levelled the scores after ten minutes with Henry Slade latching onto Ollie Devoto’s clever grubber kick, but Saints soon found themselves ahead again as they were able to get the ball wide and around the Chiefs’ defence with surprising regularity.
The TMO came to their aid first however, as Olly Woodburn’s effort was chalked off after Devoto’s basketball-style pass in the build-up was forward.
Taqele Naiyaravoro first threatened down the left wing, before Tuala unlocked Exeter again with a darting run inside and found Cobus Reinach who released Hutchinson to finish with a trademark flourish under the posts.
Superb work from Alex Waller prevented a second Exeter try as he got his leg underneath the ball as Dave Ewers looked to pounce, with the TMO once again called upon by referee Karl Dickson.
But despite some resolute defending from Saints, Chiefs kept banging on the door and finally pierced the line with Ben Moon the man to burrow over the whitewash just to the left of the posts.
Simmonds’ conversion levelled the scores again before a scrum penalty allowed Slade to hammer the ball into the corner and Don Armand put his side ahead for the first time as he sniped over the line following the lineout.
A topsy-turvy half ended in spectacular fashion however, with Northampton under the cosh again as Exeter opted to pump a penalty into the corner.
Both Courtney Lawes and Waller were shown yellow cards in quick succession but just as Saints looked certain to concede a fourth try, up popped that man Reinach to intercept the ball and sprint the length of the field to score his 12th try of the league season.
That put the scores at 21-21 after a breathless 40 minutes, but with Saints losing Reinach and Francis to knocks early in the second half, they never quite found the same momentum.
Ill-discipline cost them as Exeter opted to kick for the corner as often as possible, before relentless phase play allowed Kvesic and Dennis to stretch the hosts’ lead.
Hutchinson looked to have given Northampton a sniff with a piece of magic in the right corner, but this time the TMO denied Saints a bonus-point score as he was deemed to not quite have grounded the ball cleanly.
The visitors came close again with Naiyaravoro gaining ground before some neat interplay between Gibson and Teimana Harrison, with Saints knowing a bonus-point try might have proved vital in the race for fourth place.
But the writing was on the wall when Devoto’s kick over the top pegged Northampton back and Cowan-Dickie then burrowed over, with another close-range score for Exeter sealing their victory.
Boyd’s side will now look forward to a return to Sandy Park next weekend, this time for a winner-take-all clash against the Chiefs, with a spot in the Gallagher Premiership Final on the line.