Northampton Saints delivered a gutsy performance at Sandy Park but ultimately saw their Champions Cup dream ended by a clinical Exeter Chiefs.
The men in Black, Green and Gold dominated possession and territory for long periods of the clash, but were made to work hard for their points by the home side, who in turn made every visit to Northampton’s 22 count.
Scores from skipper Teimana Harrison and Fraser Dingwall gave Saints hope in the last-eight showdown in the West Country, but it was not enough as Exeter powered over the whitewash five times to seal a semi-final berth against Toulouse.
With Exeter’s lineout wobbling early on, the visitors took an early lead at Sandy Park, with Dan Biggar easily slotting a penalty from in front of the posts.
Chris Boyd’s side were playing the formative stages of the match in Exeter territory, with Biggar constantly looking for crossfield kicks into the hands of his wingers, but nothing was quite falling the way of Ahsee Tuala or Matt Proctor – and finally Exeter got a foothold in the game.
After a scrum won against the head, Henry Slade cut through Saints’ line and sent scrum-half Jack Maunder over under the posts.
Joe Simmonds added the extras and he did so again on 26 minutes after flanker Jacques Vermeulen powered over from close range, Mikey Haywood doing well to stop Luke Cowan-Dickie in the build up.
At 14-3 down it was already looking a long way back for Northampton, but Saints responded superbly, with the forwards cranking up the heat to grab a score three minutes before the break.
Captain Harrison was the man who got it, thanks to a dominant lineout drive as Exeter continued to concede penalties in their own half.
Biggar brilliantly converted from close to the touchline and Saints even threatened to lead at half-time, but Henry Taylor slipped after breaking the Exeter line and the hosts survived.
Chiefs made the most of that reprieve just two minutes into the second half as Jack Nowell slalomed his way through to score. Simmonds converted to make it 21-10 before Saints again tried to respond, kicking a penalty to the corner, but Exeter held out.
While Saints had built phase after phase in the Exeter 22, Chiefs were more ruthless, going to the corner and scoring as Jonny Hill went over.
The metronomic Simmonds converted to make it 28-10, but Saints snatched a try almost immediately as Dingwall flew past a couple of attempted tackles and dived over.
Biggar missed with the conversion from the right touchline and Simmonds made Saints pay soon after by landing a penalty that took Exeter 16 points clear.
Saints kept battling, putting pressure on the hosts in their own half, but the Exeter defence was relentlessly resolute, blocking Black, Green and Gold shirts at every turn.
There was one final moment of enjoyment for Manny Iyogun before the end, as the 19-year-old signed off from a huge 72-minute showing by helping his side win back-to-back scrum penalties.
Those celebrations from Saints’ bench were curtailed however as Chiefs scored again through Vermeulen, taking the final scoreline to 38-15 and ending Northampton’s European dream for another season.