Northampton Saints ended Exeter Chiefs’ six-match winning run in Aviva Premiership Rugby with an 8-3 victory in front of a modern day record crowd of more than 15,000 at Franklin’s Gardens.
Saints had previously lost four of their seven Aviva Premiership Rugby matches this season but they managed to nullify the division’s in-form team, second-placed Exeter.
Mike Haywood’s try in the opening quarter and a penalty from JJ Hanrahan was enough for victory, although Gareth Steenson’s late penalty did maintain Exeter’s record of scoring in every one of their Aviva Premiership Rugby matches.
Northampton moved to within two points of the play-offs, as Exeter’s losing bonus point lifted them to within a point of leaders Saracens – who play Leicester Tigers in their game in hand on Saturday.
They may have finished top of the table in May, but the Saints have endured a tough start to the 2015/16 campaign.
They lost to previously winless London Irish last week, and players and staff have admitted to having frank chats this week as they sought to improve their form.
Only bottom-of-the-table Newcastle Falcons have scored fewer tries, something which director of rugby Jim Mallinder attempted to address with the inclusion of fly-half Hanrahan, instead of Stephen Myler, and wing Tom Collins, who was making his first Aviva Premiership Rugby start of the season.
And the pair were involved in a move which almost led to the game’s opening score as Hanrahan’s kick through could not be gathered by George North and he inadvertently kicked through for Collins to touch down, only for referee JP Doyle to penalise the Wales star for a knock-on.
Collins impressed as the Saints spent 27 per cent of the first half in the opposition 22, compared to just five per cent for Exeter.
But when the opening try did come in the 17th minute it was via another Northampton academy graduate. Saints opted to kick a penalty to the corner and hooker Haywood started and finished the move which saw the driving maul expertly executed.
Hanrahan could only strike the post with the conversion but he did ensure the home side led by more than a converted score at the break when Exeter were penalised for offside just after the half-hour mark.
It was the first time since January 3 last year that the Chiefs entered half-time without a point on the scoreboard and also the first time they have been behind at the break this season.
Rob Baxter's men, who are second in the table, have only lost once in Aviva Premiership Rugby this season but they could have been dealt a further blow early in the second period when Thomas Waldrom was pinged for offside. However, Hanrahan was wayward with the long-range effort.
Waldrom did almost make amends when he gathered and kicked through for Don Armand to chase. But Exeter knocked on just metres from the try-line after several phases of play in difficult conditions.
Baxter admitted his team struggled to match the intensity of Northampton in the opening period and the Saints were being spurred on by a vocal crowd inside Franklin’s Gardens.
Clear openings were few and far between but that did not stop Northampton from kicking to the corner once again midway through the half, only for them to squander the opportunity.
And Gareth Steenson set up a tense finish with less than seven minutes remaining when he reduced the deficit to 8-3, after Dylan Hartley was penalised at the breakdown.
Exeter continued to apply pressure but again the resilient defence of Northampton and errors on the Chiefs’ part ensured Saints recorded a morale-boosting victory.