Second-half tries from lock Tom Hayes and centre Sireli Naqelevuki in as many minutes early in the second turn the game in Exeter Chiefs’ favour as Northampton suffered their sixth straight Aviva Premiership Rugby defeat.
The visitors dominated the first half and led 9-3 at the interval but the Chiefs scored 27 unanswered second-half points in an amazing comeback against the Heineken Cup quarter-finalists.
Despite the Chiefs recording their eighth victory in their first season in Aviva Premiership Rugby, they remain in ninth place in the table after London Wasps beat Sale at Adams Park.
Exeter gave a first Aviva Premiership Rugby start to Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo as one of three changes following last weekend’s narrow home defeat against Bath. Nadolo replaced Matt Jess, centre Phil Dollman taking over from a rested Jason Shoemark with Chad Slade in for lock James Hanks.
England lock Courtney Lawes returned to action for Northampton after suffering a knee injury against Leicester two months ago while the Saints’ other changes saw Scotland centre Joe Ansbro named on the wing, Bruce Reihana at full-back and Stuart Commins at scrum-half.
The visitors took an early lead through a 25-metre penalty from out on the right from fly-half Stephen Myler only for his opposite number Gareth Steenson to land one from 30 metres out in front of the posts a couple of minutes later. After a tremendous drive from a lineout, the Chiefs were penalised for collapsing the maul and Myler slotted his second penalty between the uprights from close to the left touchline after 15 minutes.
Myler was then just short with his next attempt from just inside the Exeter half but the Chiefs were unable to penetrate the visitors’ 22 and Steenson was off target with his attempt five minutes before the break. When in an attacking position Exeter gave away penalties, lost the ball through unforced errors or attempted to chip over the heads of the defenders without effect.
Northampton looked on course to score the opening try as Myler broke away but Dollman raced back to stop the England Saxons fly-half but hooker Brett Sharman was the next to try to breach the line. But Chiefs’ discipline again cost them dearly as the penalty count mounted with Myler landing his third penalty on the stroke of half time to give the Saints a deserved 9-3 interval lead.
Exeter started the second half strongly with scrum half Hayden Thomas breaking away but was stopped 10 metres out and when the ball was recycled hooker Neil Clark stepped back inside but was also stopped short. At the next attempt, with the ball worked back into the middle Northampton were penalised in front of the posts and Steenson reduced the arrears to three points with his second successful kick.
Exeter’s second half resurgence continued as Steenson levelled the scores a couple of minutes later with a 40-metre kick to set-up a potentially exciting final half hour in the sunshine at Sandy Park.
After a barren 130 minutes without an Exeter try, skipper Tom Hayes squeezed in to the left corner and minutes later centre Sireli Naqelevuki raced down the touchline for the second. Steenson converted both from the left touchline to build up a commanding 23-9 lead as the Saints looked rattled as they began to be pinned back within their own 22 for long periods.
Northampton finally put the Chiefs under pressure in the final quarter but they defended solidly, learning from their first-half errors, and mounted a counter-attack. Blindside flanker Tom Johnson then raced 60 metres to score the Chiefs’ third try under the posts with Steenson adding the simple conversion and leaving the Saints needing to score three times in the final ten minutes.
Exeter went in search of the bonus point try when replacement Matt Jess raced down the left touchline but he was stopped 20 metres from the line by replacement Greig Tonks before wing Nic Sestaret was yellow-carded in the final minute.