Northampton Saints were agonisingly beaten late on for the second week running as Joe Simmonds’ last-gasp penalty handed Exeter Chiefs a narrow victory at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.
The visitors held a slender 17-13 advantage at the interval after Josh Hodge and Dave Ewers scored either side of Saints centre Matt Proctor.
But while Saints were irresistible in the opening stages of the second half, with Tom Collins and Juarno Augustus scoring in quick succession to open up a 28-17 lead, Chiefs came back in the closing stages to score twice through Jack Yeandle and Olly Woodburn to edge themselves ahead.
Replacement Piers Francis levelled the scores with just six minutes remaining with a monster penalty from close to halfway, but Northampton were then penalised on the edge of their own 22 and up stepped Simmonds to win the game for Exeter.
An error from the kick-off put Saints on the back foot, but a strong defensive set followed with James Grayson, David Ribbans and Api Ratuniyarawa making big hits to eventually force a knock-on from Jannes Kirsten.
The hosts were then let off by the TMO after they were picked off in midfield; George Furbank scythed through a gap but as Saints shipped the ball wide, Hodge intercepted and burst away to score – but in stepped Andrew Jackson to rule out the score and award Northampton a penalty as Alex Coles was pulled back in the build-up.
Grayson kicked for three points but Chiefs responded immediately as they recovered the restart and Hodge danced through a gap, with Saints going off their feet at the breakdown to hand Simmonds a simple three-pointer of his own.
The hosts produced some Harlem Globetrotter-style rugby in the 16th minute as Furbank collected his own chip before two sublime offloads from Courtnall Skosan and Api Ratuniyarawa – but Proctor could not quite cling onto the latter’s pass with the line at his mercy.
Saints did go ahead again with another Grayson penalty but Exeter scored the game’s opening try through Hodge, who – after Exeter got the ball wide direct from a lineout – cut inside Collins and pinned his ears back to cross the whitewash.
However a moment of magic involving Alex Mitchell and Augustus down the right saw Northampton retake the lead; the scrum-half darted down the blind side and offloaded to the No.8, whose footwork took him past a defender before he offloaded for Proctor to finish.
Grayson landed the conversion from out wide to make it 13-10, but six minutes before the break Exeter won a penalty just inside Saints’ half and kicked towards the corner, where they built the phases before Ewers burrowed over from close range.
At 17-13 it was all to play for, and Northampton shot out of the traps at the start of the second half as captain Fraser Dingwall’s outstanding outside break created the space for Collins to collect on his shoulder, and canter under the posts.
Grayson’s simple conversion made it 20-17, but Collins was in the centre of the action moments later as his burst took the men in Black, Green and Gold 50 metres up the pitch, before Chiefs infringed at the breakdown in front of the posts to hand Grayson another easy three points.
Another try for Saints came shortly after, as Northampton obliterated an Exeter scrum on the 22 to win the ball against the head, with Augustus scooping it up and sprinting around the corner to score.
Grayson’s conversion attempt was just wide on this occasion, and Chiefs started to claw their way back into the game with the TMO ruling out a score for the visitors on the hour mark as the ball was held-up over the line.
But Mitchell was yellow-carded shortly after for a deliberate knock-on and Exeter made the extra man count immediately as Yeandle scored in the corner after a couple of penalties in quick succession saw Chiefs advance up to the five-metre line.
Woodburn then scored a sensational try as he gathered Simmonds’ inch-perfect cross-field kick at pace to secure a bonus point in the corner – and crucially both touchline conversions were nailed by Simmonds to hand Exeter a slender advantage at 31-28.
Two replacements combined on 74 minutes as JJ Tonks got over the ball on halfway to win a penalty, with Francis pointing to the posts and thumping a huge kick through the uprights into the wind.
However, with the scores once again level at 31-31, there was a cruel late twist for the hosts who were themselves penalised on their own 22, and Simmonds made no mistake to slot the decisive kick.
Saints piled on the pressure to try and win the ball back from the restart, but with the clock ticking down towards the red, time was ultimately against them and Chiefs were able to hold on for the win.