A late Joe Simmonds penalty broke Northampton hearts as a 14-man Saints outfit went down to a narrow 26-29 defeat to Exeter Chiefs in the final home game of the season at Franklin’s Gardens.
Following the sending off of Dave Ribbans for a high tackle in the 12th minute, Exeter eventually made their numerical advantage count, scoring four second-half tries to overturn an 18-point deficit – though a try from Mikey Haywood did leave the scores level until Simmonds’ late kick.
The men in Black, Green and Gold had produced a sensational first 40 minutes, as in spite of Ribbans’ red card, Rory Hutchinson’s double paired with the boot of Dan Biggar opened up an 18-0 lead at the halfway mark which saw Saints given a standing ovation from the 4,000 supporters in attendance as they headed into the sheds.
The hosts set the tone early by turning down a kick in front of the posts in favour of a lineout in the corner. The aggressive call proved to be the right one multiple phases later when Biggar picked up his first assist of the day to send Hutchinson over in the corner.
Exeter responded with multiple visits to the 22, only for a knock-on and a Courtney Lawes breakdown penalty to halt successive attacks.
The size of the task got that much larger for the men in Black, Green and Gold with 12 minutes on the clock when Ribbans was adjudged to have made contact with the head of Luke Cowan-Dickie. Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys brandished a red card that left Saints down to 14 with over three quarters of the game remaining.
Despite playing with a man down, it was Northampton’s turn to break on first phase as a ball out the back to Ollie Sleightholme sent the wing into space, though his chip was well covered by Tom O’Flaherty who dotted down for a 22 restart.
Exeter did not have the backfield as well covered moments later. Spotting space in behind, Biggar brilliantly executed a deft chip for Hutchinson to run onto, with the centre’s grubber leaving him in a foot race with Stuart Hogg. The Saint had more than enough pace to beat his fellow Scot to the bouncing ball and ground underneath the posts.
Biggar nearly turned provider once again moments later as his inside ball to Proctor sent the Kiwi through a gap and into the 22. With no support coming, Proctor took the contact as Saints looked to recycle, only for a loose ball at the resulting breakdown to let Exeter off the hook.
The pressure was only relieved for so long. After proving instrumental in attack, it was Biggar’s defence that allowed Saints to create their next chance, intercepting a Cowan-Dickie long lineout throw before breaking into the Exeter half.
O’Flaherty was the only man standing between Biggar and a length-of-the field try as the Welsh out-half opted to chip ahead, with his chase doing enough to force O’Flaherty into conceding a lineout.
Exeter responded with a rare foray into Saints territory, but not for the first time, Lawes proved impossible to shift off the ball as he won his second breakdown penalty of the day.
Saints then added to their lead when another penalty allowed Biggar an easy kick in front of the posts, before the influential out-half added another three via a drop-goal.
That proved to be the final score of the half as a Tom Wood jackal followed by an Ehren Painter counter-ruck thwarted Exeter’s efforts to get on the board before the break – however, it was the visitors who started the second half brightly, opening their account when Sam Skinner burrowed over from close range.
Exeter continued to threaten when a Facundo Cordero break sent Hogg to within inches of the line. After initially being held up short, the Lions full-back wasn’t to be denied a couple of phases later when an Ian Whitten offload sent him over for a second Exeter score in quick succession. Simmonds added the extras this time to narrow the Saints lead to 18-12 with half an hour to go.
Saints needed something to wrest the momentum back their way, and it came in the form of a scrum penalty. Biggar was left with a tricky angle from a wide position on the 10m line, but made no mistake off the tee as the lead was padded out to nine.
Exeter continued to narrow the gap, scoring their third of the day when Stu Townsend dove over off the back of a powerful rumbling maul.
Once again though, Saints responded in the perfect manner. It was the bench making the desired impact as Emmanuel Iyogun created the chance with a beautiful offload off the deck. With space now having opened up out wide, Tommy Freeman stepped past one defender before drawing another to send Mikey Haywood over only moments after entering the fray.
Exeter did not let that try halt their comeback, levelling the scores through Ollie Devoto after another break from Townsend. Simmonds then put his side into the lead for the first time when slotting a penalty inside the 22.
Saints looked to snatch victory with one last attack inside Exeter territory, but a forward pass with the clock in the red killed any hopes for late drama. Chris Boyd’s side will conclude their season next week with a trip to Bath.