Matt Jess is delighted Exeter Chiefs stayed in the hunt for an Aviva Premiership Rugby double after playing his part in a dominant 55-25 Braves win against Northampton Wanderers to seal the Aviva A League at Sandy Park.
Northampton crossed through Jamie Elliott after Michele Campagnaro powered over for Exeter’s first try and when departing veteran Brett Sturgess ran in the Braves’ second, Rory Hutchinson’s quick-thinking levelled proceedings.
The two sides were poised at 24-20 after a nip-and-tuck first-half in which Kai Horstmann and Elvis Taione also scored for the hosts, while Reece Marshall grabbed a third for Northampton and both kickers struggled in a swirling breeze.
The Wanderers took the lead immediately after half-time through Tom Collins' fine solo effort, but from then on it was all Braves as they ran in four more tries –through Horstmann, Tom Hendrickson, Ben White and Byron McGuigan – for 31 unanswered points.
And now veteran winger Jess, who has been with Exeter since 2008, believes Rob Baxter’s men have what it takes to add the Aviva Premiership Rugby crown to their A League title.
“It is about making it a double, but it is about taking it game by game, next week Quins is going to be a big game, they’re going to give an emotional performance in Conor O’Shea’s last game,” the 32-year-old said.
“We have to go up there with the right mentality to first of all secure a win and then look to get a home semi-final.
“At the end of the day, it’s in our hands then – we’re in a semi anyway, which is outstanding for the club, but it is about pushing all aspects, all competitions and we’re doing that."
Jess thinks the current crop of youngsters such as try-scorer Hendrickson, Sam Skinner and Max Bodilly can go on to thrive in Aviva Premiership Rugby after cutting their teeth in the Aviva A League.
Jess, who has made over 100 league appearances for Exeter, suggested that the win indicated the Devon club’s huge strength in depth – something which will be of great comfort to Baxter going into a first ever top-flight semi-final.
He said: “Academy players are playing well, but then our international players like Michele Campagnaro are putting their hands up
“I think Rob can have confidence that if there are any injuries that happen next week, we have got players to fill those voids.
“Max Bodily can definitely push on – he has to settle into position, he is playing 13, he has played wing and he can play full-back.
“Tommy Hendrickson has come down for the last three A League games and really shown up well. I think he is certainly a talent to watch.
“Sam Skinner as well, you watch him and I think he is going to start rising into some serious performances next year.
“I’m pretty sure that Rob will put them in a first-team shirt when they are ready.”
Gareth Denman ultimately felt that Exeter’s experience eventually took its toll on Northampton Wanderers, but was immensely proud of his side’s effort.
Tighthead Denman admitted the Braves pack wore them down at the set-piece, where they were bolstered by the likes of Ollie Atkins and Sturgess, but was pleased with Northampton’s efforts in the first-half despite them not being able to cap an excellent Aviva A League season with a final win.
“Pretty disappointed to be honest, I thought we had a really good first half, but they were probably a little bit more experienced than us,” he said.
“They had a really good scrum and I think that took its toll on us, they managed to edge us out and pull away from there.
“It has been massive for us really, progressing through to the final has given us something to play for, it’s just a shame that we haven’t managed to take it that step further and win it.
“It has been a good experience for us with a young squad and I am proud of them.”
Tries: Campagnaro, Sturgess, Taione, Horstmann 2, Hendrickson, White, McGuigan, Simmonds
Conversions: Hooley 5
Tries: Elliott, Hutchinson, Marshall, Collins
Exeter Braves: Chrysander Botha (Byron McGuigan, 49); Max Bodilly, Michele Campagnaro (Sam Skinner, 49), Tom Hendrickson (Pete Laverick, 69), Matt Jess; Will Hooley, Haydn Thomas (Stu Townsend, 55); Brett Sturgess (Jake Woolmore, 66), Elvis Taione (Shaun Malton, 49), Alex Brown (Jack Owlett, 70), Ollie Atkins, Lewis Stevenson, Tom Johnson, Ben White (Sam Simmonds, 61), Kai Horstmann
Northampton Wanderers: James Wilson (Howard Packman, 56); Jamie Elliott (Tim Duschene, 74), Rory Hutchinson, Sam Olver, Tom Collins; JJ Hanrahan (George Furbank, 65), Tom Kessell; Matt Beesley (Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, 56), Reece Marshall (James Fish, 65), Gareth Denman (Adam Parkins, 57), Michael Paterson, Jordan Onojaife, Ben Nutley, Lewis Ludlam, Sion Bennett (Matti Williams, 55)
Unused Replacements: Alex Moon
Referee: Matt O’Grady