Kai Horstmann’s try double capped a memorable 24 hours at Sandy Park as Exeter Braves clinched the Aviva A League with a stunning 55-25 win over Northampton Wanderers.
It was a festival atmosphere in Exeter and the crowd were rewarded with some superb running rugby as both sides opened up in the Devon sunshine.
Michele Campagnaro, Elvis Taione, Brett Sturgess and Kai Horstmann all crossed for the hosts, while Jamie Elliott, Rory Hutchinson and Reece Marshall responded for Northampton in a try-filled first-half.
Tom Collins then sliced through for Northampton immediately after the break, but their lead was short lived as Exeter piled on 31 unanswered points through Tom Hendrickson, Ben White, Horstmann, Byron McGuigan and replacement Sam Simmonds.
And now an Aviva Premiership Rugby and ‘A’ League double is still on the cards after the Chiefs beat Wasps 24-3 yesterday.
The Braves – cheered on by a partisan Sandy Park crowd – were rampant from the kick-off. Campagnaro took advantage of a superb driving maul to crash through three tackles and over within three minutes, but Hooley’s touchline conversion just dropped short.
Northampton managed to shake off Exeter’s bright start, Elliott exploiting Braves’ blindside to streak clear from just outside the 22 after 12 minutes. Hanrahan could not add the extras.
Both sides looked ambitious in the sunshine and Exeter countered again with Campagnaro bumping off another tackle as the Braves looked to go wide before Hooley pulled play back towards the right-hand touchline where Tom Johnson found himself in space and was able to hand veteran prop Sturgess a walk-in try in the corner. Hooley missed again with the conversion.
Hutchinson was then quickest to a loose ball at the base of a Braves ruck and chipped cleverly in-behind the Exeter defence, collecting his own kick and dotting down – Hanrahan missing another as the wind swirled.
Exeter were dominating possession and territory, Campagnaro in particular looked a real handful for the Wanderers' defence, but still Northampton hung-in and continued to respond well to the Braves’ onslaught.
While Matt Jess and Campagnaro made inroads out wide, the Exeter pack continued to grind forward, dominating at set-piece and their maul in particular was a real threat, they made 20 metres up the left touchline before winning a penalty and kicking to the corner.
Taione was the man to profit as Braves’ maul sent Northampton reeling backwards and Hooley grabbed his first kick of the afternoon after 33 minutes.
Northampton again responded quickly, capitalising on Exeter’s mistake from the kick-off to surge up the touchline and Sion Bennett made good ground before Marshall burrowed over the line, Hanrahan then slotted his first conversion of the match with five minutes left in the half.
The former Munster outside-half then nudged a first penalty of the afternoon three minutes later to put Northampton ahead for the first time.
Somehow there was still time for another attack and Horstmann capped a topsy-turvy half by driving over from close range after Exeter’s driving-maul had again turned the screw. Hooley knocked the conversion over for a 24-20 half-time advantage.
And it was more of the same in the second-half, Campagnaro and Jess combined to take Exeter deep into Wanderer’s half, but Northampton seized on a spilled pass to counter and Collins broke superbly to run 50metres and outpace Chrysander Botha to score. Hanrahan again could not convert.
An errant penalty gave Exeter a line-out inside the Wanderer’s half and the Braves made great use of their first-phase line-out ball, young centre Hendrickson picked a superb line off Hooley to glide under the sticks, which the 22-year-old fly-half then converted.
And it was the Braves who finally managed to gain a significant advantage, with Tom Johnson and Ollie Atkins prominent in the loose as Exeter went almost the length of the field – showing superb handling – before White muscled over from close-range
Hooley missed the conversion, but Exeter extended their lead to 36-25 with under half an hour to go.
The driving maul again ravaged the visitors as captain Horstmann flopped over for his second of the match to put the Braves 41-25 ahead before substitute McGuigan racked another with some dazzling footwork and another sharp line through the Wanderer’s defence.
Hooley’s conversion brought the score to 48-25 with 12 minutes remaining before Simmonds excellent support line heaped further woe on the Wanderers and Hooley capped proceedings off with another successful conversion for a deserved 55-25 win.
Tries: Campagnaro, Sturgess, Taione, Horstmann 2, Hendrickson, White, McGuigan, Simmonds
Conversions: Hooley 5
Tries: Elliott, Hutchinson, Marshall, Collins
Exeter Braves: Chrysander Botha; Max Bodilly, Michele Campagnaro, Tom Hendrickson, Matt Jess; Will Hooley, Haydn Thomas; Brett Sturgess, Elvis Taione, Alex Brown, Ollie Atkins, Lewis Stevenson, Tom Johnson, Ben White, Kai Horstmann
Replacements: Shaun Malton, Jake Woolmore, Jack Owlett, Sam Skinner, Sam Simmonds, Stu Townsend, Pete Laverick, Byron McGuigan
Northampton Wanderers: James Wilson; Jamie Elliott, Rory Hutchinson, Sam Olver, Tom Collins; JJ Hanrahan, Tom Kessell; Matt Beesley, Reece Marshall, Gareth Denman, Michael Paterson, Jordan Onojaife, Ben Nutley, Lewis Ludlam, Sion Bennett
Referee: Matt O’Grady
Replacements: James Fish, Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, Adam Parkins, Alex Moon, Matti Williams, Tim Duschene, George Furbank, Howard Packman