Watisoni Votu marked his Sandy Park debut with a try as Exeter Chiefs gave themselves the faintest of chances of progressing to the LV= Cup semi-finals with a 28-19 victory over Northampton Saints.
Ben White, Jack Nowell and wing Votu – who put his six-month work permit ordeal behind him with a stellar performance – all crossed in the first half, with Ignacio Mieres adding 13 points with the boot, as Exeter moved top of Pool One.
But Rob Baxter’s side fell short of securing a crucial bonus point, meaning Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins only need a losing bonus point against Ospreys on Sunday to progress to the knock-outs.
Northampton came into the game knowing a bonus-point victory of their own would see them through but, despite two late Lee Dickson tries giving them hope, they ultimately paid for their slow start.
The victory gained some measure of revenge for Exeter following their 30-19 defeat by Northampton at Sandy Park in the Aviva Premiership on January 5.
It was Votu, after his debut at Bath last weekend, who set the tone for the first half, launching into a scintillating 40-metre dash after eight minutes – breaking several tackles as he went – before being hauled down just shy of the whitewash.
The Chiefs recycled the ball quickly and back row White went over from close range, with Mieres adding the extra points to make it 7-0 after eight minutes.
And the home side were not content to rest on their laurels and crossed again just two minutes later as Ian Whitten broke through a gap, offloading to Samoan Josh Tatupu who made another 20 metres before spreading wide for full-back Nowell to go over.
Northampton looked shell-shocked with their chances of progression hanging by a thread, and matters got worse for them as Votu powered over from close range on 28 minutes.
Mieres converted, and then added a simple penalty from inside the 22 to make it 22-0 as Northampton struggled to cope with the constant waves of Exeter pressure.
The visitors were struggling to keep ball in hand but slowly seemed to be coming into the game, and after a patient build up prop Alex Waller bulldozed over in the corner – though Ryan Lamb was unable to find target with the conversion.
The visiting side were able to stop Exeter adding a fourth before the interval, but the rampaging Votu and the mazy runs of Nowell were causing Jim Mallinder’s side all sorts of problems.
Trailing 22-5 at the interval Northampton were up against it but were on the back foot immediately after the interval as Exeter looked to pick up where they had left off.
After a fruitless ten minutes Mallinder threw on five players – Soane Tonga’uiha, Phil Dowson, Stephen Myler, Samu Manoa and Dickson – as his side struggled to get into Exeter territory.
And the change had an immediate impact, with Northampton turning the screws and putting the Chiefs under a lot of pressure and forcing repeated penalties.
It was one infringement too many for Exeter, who lost try-scorer White to the sin-bin on 57 minutes, and Northampton took advantage as a driving maul sent Dickson over with Myler converting to narrow the gap to ten points.
But two Mieres penalties in quick succession increased Exeter’s lead to 28-12 as the match entered its final ten minutes.
But Saints kept pushing for an unlikely victory and – after a prolonged period of re-set scrums took valuable time off the clock – Dickson bundled over for his second of the evening.
Time had expired and as the Chiefs pushed for a vital bonus point Saints held firm to deny them – leaving their LV= Cup fate in the hands of the reigning RaboDirect PRO12 champions Ospreys.