Exeter Chiefs assistant boss Ali Hepher hailed his side’s fighting spirit as they battled back from a 12-3 half-time deficit to sink play-off chasing Northampton Saints at Sandy Park.
With Saracens losing at Leicester Tigers, the result took the Chiefs to the summit of the Aviva Premiership Rugby table with five fixtures remaining.
Gareth Steenson kicked five penalties and Olly Woodburn touched down for Exeter, with England international Henry Slade particularly impressive.
Scores from Lee Dickson and Ken Pisi looked set to give the Saints a crucial win but after the break it the Chiefs turned things around.
"We looked as though we weren't enjoying our rugby in the first half as we were frightened to make mistakes," Hepher said.
"We had a quiet word at half-time and this freed us up. We created a different and positive mindset and we said that we needed to be positive and not afraid of errors.
"We took on the message and turned the screw, we had a bit of self-belief."
Saracens boss Mark McCall admitted he is pleased to see the back of the Six Nations after his hugely depleted squad went down 21-13 at Welford Road against Leicester Tigers on Sunday.
With the likes of Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell all absent the defending Aviva Premiership Rugby champions, their under-strength were undone in the East Midlands.
Freddie Burns was the star of the show for Leicester – he scored a try, a conversion, two penalties and a drop goal – to help his side leapfrog Northampton Saints into the play-off places.
Vereniki Goneva also scored for the Tigers, while Alex Goode – fresh from England’s Six Nations win in Paris on Saturday night – scored all 13 of Saracens’ points.
And Saracens Director of Rugby McCall was understandably upset at the final whistle and pointed to his side’s discipline as a major contributing factor to their loss.
“They took advantage of our sin-binnings in the second half much better than we did theirs in the first half,” he said.
“We fought very hard and the way we defended first half was outstanding. We lacked a bit of firepower and we made a few fundamental errors.
“The Six Nations has hit us hard but we’re very, very proud of our players. All of them have been integral to it. It hasn’t been an easy period for us and everyone knows we’ve been stretched.
“It was good for us to get Schalk Brits back and Alex Goode had a huge game. Alex is a product of the club and he was desperate to play despite only having a few hours sleep and arriving back at Luton from Paris at 6am this morning.
“Next week it will be great because it will be the first time in nine weeks we’ll have some choices.”
Bottom side London Irish battled to a crucial 23-18 win over Gloucester Rugby to cut the gap to 11th-placed Newcastle Falcons to five points with five games remaining.
Blair Cowan's late try and the boot of Greig Tonks sealed a victory at the Madejski Stadium that could prove vital in the final reckoning for Tom Coventry's side.
“There were some times when we had our backs to the wall,” Coventry said. “But they fought and they scratched and did what they needed to do to get to the finish line.
“Obviously, it’s one game out of a number that we need to perform well in, but it’s a start, isn’t it?”
Meanwhile, Wasps’ director of rugby Dai Young insists a deliberate emphasis on an intensive start paved the way for another important bonus-point win against Sale Sharks.
Jimmy Gopperth starred with 17 points but it was the ferocious pace with which Wasps began that set up the five-try win – Charles Piutau and Rob Miller both crossing inside the first six minutes.
Ashley Johnson, Gopperth and Christian Wade also got on the scoresheet to ensure Wasps tightened their grip on third place with five fixtures remaining, although Young believes there is more to come.
“I certainly would have settled for that before the game. You can’t get any more than five points, and we’ve achieved that which keeps the momentum going,” he said.
“We talked about starting really big in the first 20 or 25 minutes, as if you look at the stats that is usually Sale’s best period.
“We had a big focus all week on that and I thought we were good. Then we became a bit individual, and came out of structure a little and allowed them to get back into it in the second half.
“I was getting a bit concerned when they scored their second try, and we found another gear.
“It wasn’t anywhere near a pitch-perfect performance, but to get the five points is all you can ask for.
“Our scrum went really well and Jake Cooper-Woolley and Simon McIntyre both played very well. That said we were on top in most aspects, but we struggled to put enough distance between us, and our discipline was a bit of an Achilles heel again.”
Dean Ryan praised his side's defensive performance after Worcester Warriors kept Harlequins try-less in a 21-15 victory at the Stoop.
Wynand Olivier and GJ Van Velze both crossed in a first-half Warriors’ purple patch, while Quins could only reply through five Ben Botica penalties.
"I thought we were great defensively to deprive Harlequins of a try,” said Ryan. “They're probably the most dangerous side in the league on a dry day.
"We've stayed confident and we want to take this club in a different direction.”
While Bath Rugby’s Mike Ford admits his side got lucky after they scraped past Newcastle Falcons 21-19 at the Rec on Friday evening.
Semesa Rokoduguni's two late first-half tries – the first of which followed an irresistible piece of skill – sent the hosts in 12-7 ahead at the interval against the run of play.
And Tom Homer was the man to hold his nerve for Bath, nailing two penalties inside the final ten minutes to edge his side home – but the home crowd were treated to a grandstand finish as Falcons fly-half Mike Delany saw three golden drop-goal chances go begging.
And with a host of faces set to return for his side this week, Ford believes the triumph – which handed Bath consecutive home wins for the first time this season – could be a turning point.
"We defended for 31 phases there at the end, which is phenomenal not to give away a penalty," he said. "We were ill-disciplined at times having two sent to the bin and giving away several penalties in a row.
"But we're pleased to get away with it, and being in the position we are in and with the confidence we are lacking, it's always good to come in on Monday with a win behind us.”
Exeter Chiefs 20 Northampton Saints 12
Penalties: Steenson 5
Tries: Dickson, K Pisi
Referee: Greg Garner
Leicester Tigers 21 Saracens 13
Tries: Burns, Goneva
Penalties: Burns 2
Drop Goal: Burns
Penalties: Goode 2
Ref: JP Doyle
London Irish 23 Gloucester Rugby 18
Tries: Aulika, Cowan
Conversions: Tonks 2
Penalties: Tonks 3
Tries: Ludlow, Trinder
Penalties: Hook 2
Referee: Matt Carley
Wasps 39 Sale Sharks 12
Tries: C.Piutau, Miller, Johnson, Gopperth, Wade
Conversions: Gopperth 3, Jackson
Penalties: Gopperth 2
Tries: Seymour, Briggs
Referee: Dean Richards
Harlequins 15 Worcester Warriors 21
Penalties: Botica 5
Tries: Olivier, van Velze
Penalties: Heathcote 3
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys
Bath Rugby 21 Newcastle Falcons 19
Tries: Rokoduguni 2
Penalties: Homer 3
Yellow Cards: Louw, Thomas
Penalties: Delany 3
Yellow Cards: Lawson
Referee: T Wigglesworth