Northampton Saints’ Gallagher Premiership title challenge was ended at the semi-final stage after a second defeat in as many weeks at Exeter Chiefs.
The men in Black, Green and Gold trailed by just two points at the break after a scintillating first half of rugby, with a penalty try and then Ahsee Tuala – on his hundredth Club appearance – getting on the scoresheet.
But, as they had done the weekend beforehand, the hosts pulled away after the interval to deny Chris Boyd and his side a Final berth at Twickenham next Saturday.
Saints’ scrum impressed in the early stages with both sides looking to trade early blows and get the ball through the hands.
Exeter soon began to dominate territory however and looked to build phases inside Northampton’s 22, but skipper Teimana Harrison won a brilliant turnover after ten minutes as he held the ball up.
Cobus Reinach then performed some defensive wizardry to deny Dave Ewers from little more than a metre out, getting underneath the ball to prevent a try with the help of the TMO after 12 minutes.
But the deadlock was finally broken six minutes later, with referee Matthew Carley awarding a questionable scrum to Chiefs on the five-metre line after Tuala swept up Slade’s grubber-kick.
Harry Williams burst over from close range as a result, and Joe Simmonds was on the money with his conversion to make it 7-0.
An offside penalty then allowed Exeter to send the ball back up into the corner again shortly after, and with the hosts building the phases again a gap opened up for Simmonds, with the fly-half throwing a dummy and scampering over just to the right of the posts before converting his own score.
But Saints then began to throw a few punches of their own, with a penalty won at the breakdown inside Chiefs’ 22, followed by another for collapsing the resulting rolling maul.
Exeter looked under pressure and with another rolling maul expertly set-up, James Fish was illegally impeded as he looked to ground the ball – leading to a penalty try and a yellow card for winger Tom O’Flaherty in the aftermath.
Tom Collins’ acrobatic grab from Dan Biggar’s clearance saw Saints surge up the field again just moments later, and after Naiyaravoro collected another crossfield kick from Biggar, Northampton flung the ball wide again before a piece of Hutchinson magic saw him gather a bobbling ball and offload to Tuala to score.
Sandy Park was shellshocked and the momentum stayed largely with Saints until the interval, but with Biggar’s conversion attempt drifting just right of the uprights the visitors went in just behind at 14-12.
They did have gilt-edged chance to pull ahead with the clock in the red however; Hutchinson was again the architect with a slick dummy and break through the midfield, but with just one man left to beat the centre’s pass was just behind Reinach who could not quite gather with the tryline at his mercy.
Saints paid the price for some ill-discipline seven minutes into the second period, with an offside penalty allowing Chiefs to send the ball into the corner and Dave Dennis went over from a metre out.
The next score was crucial and unfortunately for Boyd’s men, it went to Exeter with O’Flaherty breaking the line on halfway and turning on the afterburners to finish off an impressive individual try two minutes later.
Boyd rang the changes in search of a way back into the game, with new props entering the fray in Alex Waller and Paul Hill, while Courtney Lawes was moved into the engine room and Alex Mitchell brought on at scrum-half.
But they could not turn the tide and two more late scores for Sam Simmonds and Sam Hill put some gloss on the win for Chiefs.
The result ends Saints’ 2018/19 campaign but Northampton supporters can toast a year of progress with a Premiership semi-final, European quarter-final, and Premiership Rugby Cup triumph on the report card for the season.