Two tries from lock David Ribbans were not enough to prevent Northampton Saints from a home defeat to league leaders Exeter Chiefs after an agonisingly close contest at Franklin’s Gardens.
A top-four finish in the Gallagher Premiership now looks to be beyond the men in Black, Green and Gold after a third consecutive defeat, with Henry Taylor also crossing the whitewash for Saints who are now left with a mountain to climb if they are to reach the play-offs – with only four games of the regular season left to play.
Saints Director of Rugby, Chris Boyd, made 11 changes to his starting XV from the side that went down to Harlequins on Sunday, including a completely new pack. Meanwhile Chiefs boss Rob Baxter had also overhauled his side after Sunday's nine-try win against Worcester.
After a high-tempo start where the ball hardly seemed to go out of play, it was the visitors who struck first with only eight minutes gone. After Saints failed to deal with a high ball, the visitors mounted a superb counter-attack from halfway which was eventually finished off by Sean Lonsdale and converted by Gareth Steenson.
The visitors then scored their second just four minutes later. Again Saints could not deal with a box kick, which the Chiefs gobbled up, working their way down field for second-row Jannes Kirsten to eventually touch down – Steenson again adding the extras to extend the lead to 14-0.
Saints regrouped and continued to enjoy territorial dominance, but were frustrated by a resolute Chiefs defence, at one point being stopped after 25 phases. But the home side eventually prevailed to score their first points of the game when second-row Ribbans crashed over from short range, after Saints had built momentum and hammered away in the Chiefs 22. Biggar converted to bring up his 300th point in Black, Green and Gold.
Not long after Saints had their second as scrum-half Henry Taylor accelerated onto an offload from James Fish, after the hooker had punched a hole in the Chiefs backline thanks to a neat pass from Biggar. It was a fine score from the hosts, although the Welsh fly-half failed to convert the extra points to leave the score at 12-14 at the break.
Saints’ momentum continued after the restart and they were rewarded with a third try on 42 minutes. It was another thrilling move, which started when centre Matt Proctor counter-rucked Chiefs ball to turn defence into attack.
Rory Hutchinson then accelerated on an outside arc before finding Biggar back on the inside. Exeter defended desperately, but they could not keep Ribbans out as the lock crashed through two tackles to score his second try of the night, converted by Biggar for a 19-14 lead.
From here Saints looked to protect their lead with smart kicking and game management, but they were pegged back after Tom O’Flaherty darted through a gap and Exeter then won a penalty in front of the posts at a resulting breakdown to allow Steenson to reduce the gap to two points at 19-17.
And Chiefs were not finished there, as a solid rolling maul from the visitors created some momentum – and after Steenson flung it wide, Exeter went down the short side and that man O'Flaherty danced over from close range.
Saints tried to respond with ten minutes on the clock, but with a couple of reset scrums killing the clock, they were unable to strike back before the clock ticked into the red.
Next up for Boyd’s side is a visit to Ashton Gate to play Bristol Bears on Tuesday evening.