Northampton Saints endured a difficult outing in the West Country as they went down 57-7 away at Exeter Chiefs.
The men in Black, Green and Gold were right in the game for most of the first half, but two quick-fire Exeter scores saw the Gallagher Premiership leaders pull clear and from there Chiefs were ruthlessly clinical.
James Grayson did muster a consolation score for Saints after the break, but a disappointing final scoreline sees Northampton drop down to fourth in the league standings at the halfway point of the season.
Both sides were feeling each other out in a back-and-forth opening ten minutes, but when an initial scrum penalty on halfway gave the Chiefs field position, Saints were pinged again over the ball by referee Jack Makepeace for not rolling away – leaving Joe Simmonds to open the scoring from the tee.
Northampton produced several good defensive sets to keep Exeter at bay, before Saints’ second foray into the opposition 22 came from Collins’ effective grubber-kick. But despite the hosts coughing up possession with a knock-on, they then forced another turnover from the resulting scrum.
Matt Proctor was penalised for a high tackle and Chiefs sent the ball into the corner with 14 minutes remaining in the half, but Francois van Wyk worked so hard over the ball to win a penalty.
Andy Symons and Taqele Naiyaravoro both made big breaks as Saints enjoyed some possession, and JJ Tonks just couldn’t beat Simmonds to Symons’ kick through to score the game’s opening try.
But the game changed for Northampton after a rotten bounce took a chip over the top away from Grayson and into the arms of Jannes Kirsten, with Chiefs scoring two phases later through Jonny Hill.
Things then went from bad to worse for Saints before the break, as a dropped ball on halfway led to Tom Collins seeing yellow for an illegal clear out – and with the visitors down to 14 Exeter were ruthless to send both Elvis Taione and Kirsten over the whitewash and put the game out of sight.
Director of rugby Chris Boyd unloaded Northampton’s bench for the beginning of the second half, with Owen Franks, Mikey Haywood, Alex Waller and Lewis Ludlam tasked with turning fortunes around for the men in Black, Green and Gold.
Waller made an immediate impact, winning a penalty inside his own 22 – but with a free-kick given against Saints in a scrum soon after, Exeter secured a try bonus point as Tom Hendrickson went over from a first-phase move after cutting an inside line to go under the posts.
The inside centre rumbled over again shortly after Ben Moon had charged forward and finished well, with Chiefs very much on the front foot.
Northampton did fire a shot with ten minutes remaining; after a prolonged period of pressure on the Exeter line, a quickly-taken penalty saw Grayson dive over the line to the left of the posts.
But Saints’ afternoon was summed up as they quickly turned over the kick-off and Tom O'Flaherty skipped down the right wing to score in the corner.
There was still time for Sam Skinner to scoop up a loose pass and feed Sam Simmonds to score Exeter’s final try, leaving Boyd’s Northampton side with plenty of work to do to turn their fortunes around ahead of Saracens’ visit to Franklin’s Gardens next weekend.