Northampton Saints went down by the tightest of margins at the home of Exeter Chiefs, as a last-minute score from the defending Aviva Premiership champions snatched away a victory.
Saints held a narrow but deserved 17-14 lead at the break at Sandy Park, Stephen Myler’s long-range penalty the difference as Rob Horne and Ben Foden both crossed the whitewash.
And the visitors had stretched that lead to 30-17 with ten minutes remaining thanks to Harry Mallinder’s early second-half try and two more penalties from the boot of Piers Francis.
But the Chiefs had the last word as first Don Armand finished off a searing break before Thomas Waldrom pierced the wall of Saints bodies with the clock ticking into the red to steal the win.
It was a scrappy opening to the game from both sides, but Saints came alive in the seventh minute as Luther Burrell and Jamie Gibson combined brilliantly to send Rob Horne through down the short side.
Francis’ conversion was sweetly struck but Exeter hit back shortly after, advancing up the field from kick-off and eventually the hosts kicked into the corner with Saints pinged at the breakdown.
And from there the rolling-maul specialists pushed the visitors back towards their own line, and while Saints eventually stopped Chiefs in their tracks, referee Christophe Ridley adjusted it was done illegally and awarded a penalty try.
Campese Ma’afu saw yellow in the aftermath, but Saints defended heroically for the next ten minutes with Francis and Gibson combining to hold up Luke Cowan-Dickie after the hooker barged his way over the whitewash.
A massive scrum against the head from Saints on their own five-metre line prompted huge celebrations, and with the momentum swinging the way of the 14-man side, they won a penalty just inside the Exeter half.
With the wind at his back, replacement Stephen Myler – on for Francis who was undergoing an HIA – stroked over his kick to put Saints back in front.
Ahsee Tuala and Nic Groom then made big gains as space opened up down the right-hand side, but resilient Exeter defence kept them at bay and it was the hosts who scored next.
Exeter built the phases, Jonny Hill made a key break and Alec Hepburn burrowed his way over the whitewash – with Ridley awarding the try via the TMO.
But there was an immediate response from Saints; Harry Mallinder did well to keep ball in play, before a brilliant break from Burrell saw him find Horne to his left, and Foden was there to run it in from the 22 into the left corner.
Francis’ touchline conversion made it 17-14 at the break – a lead Saints richly deserved.
And Northampton came roaring out of the blocks after the break, with a piece of brilliance from Francis. His show-and-go and offload out the back left Horne with only Lachie Turner to beat, and he safely found Mallinder who was there in support to finish under the posts.
Steenson elected to make it a one-score game with a 52nd-minute penalty with Saints coming under some pressure from the hosts, but Francis responded with two quick-fire three pointers as Northampton forced Exeter errors at the breakdown and entered the final 15 minutes leading 30-17.
But Exeter showed why they are defending Aviva Premiership champions to set up a grandstand finish when Armand finished off a sweeping move under the posts to reduce the deficit to six.
And despite some heroic defending from Saints, they found themselves five metres out from their own line again with seconds remaining, and Waldrom found the gap to strike the killer blow.
Joe Simmonds made no mistake with the conversion from right in front, meaning Saints left Sandy Park with just a losing bonus point to show for a superb effort.
7’ SAINTS Try Horne, Conversion Francis 0-7
16’ CHIEFS Try (Penalty) 7-7
26’ SAINTS Penalty Myler 7-10
34’ CHIEFS Try Hepburn, Conversion Steenson 14-10
37’ SAINTS Try Foden, Conversion Francis 14-17
HALF-TIME Chiefs 14 – 17 Saints
42’ SAINTS Try Mallinder, Conversion Francis 14-24
51’ CHIEFS Penalty Steenson 17-24
53’ SAINTS Penalty Francis 17-27
58’ SAINTS Penalty Francis 17-30
70’ CHIEFS Try Armand, Conversion Simmonds 24-30
80’ CHIEFS Try Waldrom, Conversion Simmonds 31-30
FULL-TIME Chiefs 31 – 30 Saints