All eyes were on George North but it was Luther Burrell who stole the show as Northampton Saints laid down the gauntlet to their Aviva Premiership rivals with a thumping 38-11 victory over Exeter Chiefs.
Burrell was the stand-out performer for a ruthless Saints side who had racked up their four-try bonus point by half-time – Dylan Hartley, Ken Pisi, Tom Wood and George Pisi all crossing before the break.
The second half saw the Chiefs admirably limit the damage and score a try of their own by skipper Dean Mumm before Saints responded late on with a pushover from replacement Samu Manoa.
British & Irish Lions stars North and Alex Corbisiero made their debuts in front of an expectant Franklin’s Gardens but it was skipper Hartley who responded to his sending off in last season’s Aviva Premiership final in the best possible fashion, dotting down after just two minutes in front of the watching Stuart Lancaster.
Centre Burrell, who made his England debut in the summer against Argentina, was the architect with a superb long pass to find hooker Hartley, who darted for the line himself despite support out wide.
Stephen Myler, another to win his first England cap against the Pumas, added the extras although Saints weren’t having things all their own way – Phil Dowson was sent to the sin bin on ten minutes for killing the ball in front of the posts from an offside position.
Gareth Steenson made no mistake with the penalty but despite their numerical disadvantage, Saints continued to carry the fight to Exeter with wave after wave of attack – Alex King’s influence as backs coach already bearing fruit.
Myler was lethal from the tee throughout and he had his first penalty of the day before North raised the roof at the Gardens, bursting down the left from his own try-line and getting over halfway before a posse of Chiefs finally stopped him.
On 19 minutes however, Ken Pisi grabbed his side’s second try of the afternoon after a scything break from that man Burrell – Myler again converted to leave Exeter shellshocked.
In total Saints added ten points when down to 14 men and with Dowson restored, they soon made it try number three – Ben Foden somewhat fortuitously gathering his fly hack and offloading to the supporting Tom Wood, who skippered England in Argentina, for the simplest of tries to make it 24-3 on 23 minutes.
The Chiefs gathered themselves and enjoyed a rare spell of possession soon after but when they threatened the try-line, with the penalty advantage, George Pisi’s superb defence kept them at bay.
They did go back for the penalty however and Steenson notched his second three-pointer of the day but Saints hit back again and saved their best for last in the first half – George Pisi rounding off a fine flowing move that saw Hartley, Christian Day and Courtney Lawes combined to send the Samoan through.
Chastised by Saints in the first half, Exeter sought about restoring pride in the second half and their cause was helped by the sin-binning of Lawes for a dangerous tackle on 46 minutes.
Saints showed their attacking qualities in the first half and displayed their defence grit in the second, holding the Chiefs, determined to trim the deficit, at bay.
A raft of substitutions saw Saints flex their muscles – introducing Samu Manoa, Calum Clark and Kahn Fotuali’i off the bench – but it was the Chiefs who drew first blood in the second half, skipper Dean Mumm crossing before replacement fly-half Henry Slade missed the conversion.
The Chiefs sought to frustrate the Saints by slowing down the match and they succeeded – starving the hosts of possession with only one neat show of hands from North all the home faithful had to shout about.
That was until Saints won a penalty deep in enemy territory and kicked for the corner, Manoa shoving over from the resulting lineout for try number five – much to the delight of forwards coach Dorian West – before Myler again converted.