The Saints started 2016 with an Aviva Premiership win, overcoming one of the league’s in-form teams and horrendous conditions at a sold-out Franklin’s Gardens to do so.
Sometimes matches need end-to-end rugby to be dramatic. Sometimes the fewer points, the better, at least in terms of keeping the nerves on edge and the contest going right up until the final whistle.
This clash certainly fell into the latter category, as despite having more of the territory and the better chances Saints could not shake Exeter loose. As much as this was to do with a bad bounce of the ball or some inaccuracy close to the visitors’ line, it was also down to the Chiefs’ sheer bloodymindedness in defence and determination to not throw in the towel.
However had the Devon side left with the points it would have been a travesty, as Saints’ dominance in defence - especially at the breakdown, where time and again their judicious decisions when and when not to compete - shut the travellers down completely.
Indeed Exeter had only one clear chance in the entire 80 minutes, a second half opportunity created by Thomas Waldrom’s dexterity and skill in scooping up a bouncing ball to kick ahead in the same motion and set up camp in the home 22.
But then, as so often at other times during the contest, the black, green and gold hordes flooded back to slow, and then ultimately turn over the attack.
When the heavy rain stops and pulses return to normal, there may be some frustrations that the game was not put to bed long before Gareth Steenson gave Exeter hope six minutes from time with a penalty.
There was a five-metre lineout just before then that Jamie Gibson just failed to control under pressure, a five-metre scrum in the first half that saw Exeter win a penalty to clear, and a few half-chances set up by repeated superb work from Tom Collins and Ben Foden to collect their own Garryowens and regain possession.
But when it mattered, and before the rain came down in earnest, the Saints’ pack did what it had to do, driving man of the match Mikey Haywood over for the game’s only try after 17 minutes. Exeter’s ill discipline had put Saints in the position by allowing JJ Hanrahan to kick deep to the corner, and when Ian Whitten and Michele Campagnaro came offside while chasing a Steenson clearance in front of their own uprights the home Irishman had a straightforward shot to put his team two scores clear, which he duly did.
As conditions worsened - those watching at home on BT Sport would not have had the same impression of the weather as the 15,430 packed into Franklin’s Gardens - possession and territory became increasingly important.
And in this regard Saints’ superiority in both their kicking game and at the breakdown started to come to the fore. By and large the tactical exchanges ended up going the hosts’ way, with the high balls remaining a potent weapon in getting them upfield. And at the ruck the decision-making of forwards and backs alike helped win turnover after turnover, ending potentially dangerous spells of Exeter possession and giving the kickers the opportunity to make territory from penalties.
Ultimately this was what won the game. Saints had the physicality and intensity when, and where, it mattered, and with two thirds of the season still to be played are well placed to build on their three wins from their last four Aviva Premiership matches.
SAINTS Foden (capt); Collins, G Pisi, Burrell, North; Hanrahan, Fotuali’i; A Waller, Haywood, Hill, Lawes, Matfield, Gibson, Harrison, Dickinson
Subs - Hartley, E Waller, Denman, Day, Paterson, Dickson, Myler, Mallinder
EXETER Dollman; Nowell, Campagnaro, Whitten, Woodburn; Steenson, Chudley; Moon, Yeandel (capt), Francis, Lees, Parling, Armand, Johnson, Waldrom
Subs - Taione, Rimmer, Low, Atkins. White, Lewis, Hooley, Short
17mins SAINTS Try Haywood 5-0
32mins SAINTS Pen Hanrahan 8-0
HALF-TIME SAINTS 8 EXETER 0
42mins SAINTS Miss pen Hanrahan
74mins EXETER Pen Steenson 8-3
FULL-TIME SAINTS 8 EXETER 3