Northampton Saints got their play-off charge back on track against Exeter Chiefs and in the process won their first Aviva Premiership match in three attempts thanks to scores from Ken Pisi, Soane Tonga’uiha and GJ van Velze.
After narrow defeats against Harlequins and Saracens in their last two outings – Northampton’s ability to challenge for silverware this season has been questioned in recent weeks but Jim Mallinder’s men produced a performance to remember at Sandy Park.
Twelve points from the boot of Gareth Steenson kept Exeter in contention, with Stephen Myler adding 15 of his own, but decisive scores from Tonga’uiha, Pisi and van Velze took the game away from the Chiefs, who suffered their first home league defeat of the season.
Exeter – looking to claim their first Aviva Premiership win in three attempts – started like an express train and dominated possession and territory in the first ten minutes, with England flanker Tom Johnson particularly prominent.
After rejecting a long-range penalty attempt minutes earlier – Exeter took the lead through a Gareth Steenson penalty as the pressure finally told on Northampton on 13 minutes as England forward Phil Dowson was penalised at the breakdown.
Losing the lead seemed to kick-start Northampton into life and England full-back Ben Foden was the architect as the Saints crossed for the game’s opening try four minutes later.
After missing out for England through injury during the autumn internationals, Foden staked his claim for an international recall as he created a score on 17 minutes for Ken Pisi to cross out wide and score.
Stephen Myler added the extras as Exeter’s impressive start to the game started to unravel and Northampton earned a foothold in the fixture.
It could have got even worse for Exeter just minutes later as Foden again created an opening out wide but this time his pass was wayward to Jamie Elliott and the chance was lost.
After a shaky start in the scrum, Northampton’s front row, which included the now fit-again Dylan Hartley and the returning Tonga’uiha, starting to dominate and on 27 minutes the Chiefs were penalised and Myler extended the Saints lead to 10-3.
Despite Exeter playing the bulk of the rugby, it was Northampton who extended their lead on 35 minutes as Exeter were penalised for collapsing the scrum and Myler slotted over the penalty.
It could have been worse for Exeter just minutes earlier but Myler struck the woodwork with a penalty from in front of the posts as Northampton began to dominate up front.
Trailing 13-3 with just three minutes to play until the interval, Saints hooker Hartley was sin-binned for not rolling away, allowing Steenson to bring Exeter back into the game with his second successful penalty of the match.
Steenson brought Exeter to back within four points of Northampton just three minutes after the break with a penalty but just 90 seconds later Myler responded with a kick of his own.
After a Gonzalo Camacho break, Luke Arscott looked set to burrow over for Exeter in front of the posts but was stopped just a couple of metres short of the line – Northampton were penalised from the resulting breakdown and Steenson slotted his fourth penalty of the afternoon.
Northampton effectively killed the game on 58 minutes with a score from Tonga’uiha – the prop burrowing over after a catch and drive, with Myler adding the extras.
After Exeter were penalised for offside, it was a brave call from Hartley to go for the corner but his gamble paid off as Tonga’uiha touched down to make it 23-12.
With 16 minutes remaining, Sireli Naqelevuki brought Exeter back to within touching distance as he blasted over for a score out wide, with the conversion from Ignacio Mieres taking the Chiefs to 23-19.
Northampton sealed the win in the 75th minute with a carbon copy catch and drive score – with South African van Velze burrowing over, with Myler adding the extras.