Emmott Leigh reports on a closely-fought game at Sandy Park between Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints, in which the former were denied victory by the narrowest of margins
A converted try in the last couple of minutes by George Pisi gave Northampton a victory by the tiny margin of just one point, despite a strong performance from Exeter who lost out 16-17.
The gale-force winds at Sandy Park proved to be a decisive factor in the strategy of the teams, with each launching a bombardment of long and high kicks into the opposing twenty-two. However, the first points on the board were secured by a break in open play, as winger Tom James slipped through a gap and forced a penalty, which was put away by Gareth Steenson.
At this point, the Chiefs were starting to dominate the match with a series of fluid passes, precise kicks and solid discipline. On the other hand, Saints were looking to reach the top of the table with a win and soon boosted those hopes with a Wilson try to take the lead.
Northampton have built their excellent season around fast, aggressive running and quick offloading of the ball, and that tactic was in full evidence over the next few minutes. George and Ken Pisi in particular were barrelling into the contact area and pinning Exeter back in their own half.
Although Steenson banged over a penalty (after two close misses on previous attempts) after Saints’ Kahn Fotuali’i rashly blindsided a Chiefs player behind a ruck, Northampton immediately struck back with Samu Manoa adjudged to have remained in play, if only by a whisker, as he stretched to ground the ball over the try line.
After Steenson scored another penalty from right in front of the posts, keeping the pressure on the Saints with a one-point deficit, the referee blew for half-time.
As the rain swept in with the wind, Northampton began to take an increasingly physical approach to the match, with numerous crunching tackles and a horrific forearm lunge by tighthead prop Salesi Ma’afu.
Given this sudden recklessness, it was not surprising to see the referee finally reach for his pocket to sin-bin GJ Van Velse of the Saints for deliberately blocking a tap penalty attempt, and it could certainly be argued that Ma’afu should have received the same fate.
Exeter took advantage of another incident of their opponents’ ill-discipline with the interception of an errant pass, but a superb defensive effort denied them a try from a half-the-pitch break.
They were even closer to touching down after driving over the Saints’ line in an attempt to ground the ball, only for the TMO to rule that it had been held up. However, such disappointment was short-lived; another build-up of pressure inside the five-metre line eventually brought the just rewards of a try, scored by Dave Lewis.
With the conversion good, Exeter entered the final three minutes with the knowledge that the only realistic possibility of losing would come from a converted try.
Sure enough, the Saints came up trumps with a heartbreaking score. Only two minutes remained when Samoan George Pisi slammed the ball down over the line, proving that Northampton are still a formidable team even with their biggest names away on England duty.
It was cruel for Exeter, who remain struggling in eighth place in the Aviva Premiership table and desperate for a top side scalp.bookmark me