A historic day for Exeter Chiefs saw the team win their first ever major trophy on home turf, writes Emmott Leigh:
Exeter Chiefs finally ended a 143 year wait for a major trophy when they toppled the Aviva Premiership league leaders Northampton Saints 15-8 at Sandy Park, in front of a sell-out crowd.
The first half kicked off with a flurry of Exeter attacks, before Chris Whitehead managed to barge his way over the line from within a drive with only a few minutes played. The move had been set up by the choice to kick for an attacking line-out rather than settling for a penalty, which certainly appeased the raucous crowd.
However, the Saints soon proved their class by powering back into the Chiefs’ 22 and working their way to an attacking scrum. It could be argued that they wheeled the scrum by the full ninety degrees at this point, but nevertheless they managed to secure a penalty, which was slotted between the posts by Glenn Dickson to leave them two points behind.
Dickson then attempted to emulate the successful tactics of the England and Ireland fly-halves in this year’s Six Nations campaign by repeatedly kicking for territory, and gaining a dangerous amount of ground for Northampton, but ultimately failed to sustain the barrage when he sliced the ball directly into touch on two occasions.
In the later stages of the first half, Northampton’s quick hands and efficient ruck-clearing were starting to wear out the Exeter defence, and it looked as if a try were inevitable when the Saints managed to force a couple of scrums right in front of the opposing line. However, the referee correctly penalised the Saints for not driving straight (the same offence attributed so crucially to Wales’ Gethin Jenkins) and let the Chiefs off the hook.
Much to the frustration of the Northampton side, fly-half Henry Slade proceeded to put away a penalty for Exeter. In doing so, he restored their five-point advantage going into the break and avenged his earlier conversion miss.
With 40 minutes standing between them and the sort of glory that they had never tasted in 143 years of existence, Baxter’s side came back out ready to scrap for the victory. They immediately wrestled their way deep into the Northampton half with some promising phases of slick rugby.
One of these phases led to a line-break; Kai Horstmann lured in a defender or two before passing to Fetu’u Vainikola, whose mad dash for the line was halted a couple of metres from the line. However, he managed to offload the ball to the ever-present Dean Mumm, who battled over the line despite the efforts of the three defenders clinging to him and stretched out his arm to ground the ball.
A mighty cheer arose in Sandy Park when the TMO confirmed that Saints full-back Foden had indeed failed to prevent the score. Slade converted, and suddenly the Chiefs were twelve points up with twenty five minutes left to play.
The clock ticked away as Exeter attempted to put the result beyond doubt, but Northampton also upped the intensity with a couple of nail-biting assaults on the line. They looked to be guaranteed a try on a couple of occasions, with only open space between them and a try, but both attempts were foiled by knock-ons.
Exeter came close to scoring too; Luke Arscott darted in off the wing only to be felled and stripped of possession with only a couple of yards left to cover. With only eleven minutes left, the crowd gave a huge groan as Samu Manoa eased over to put Northampton within distance of the Exeter tally.
The following minutes snailed by as all the Chiefs fans chewed on their nails and glanced anxiously at the clock, which had unhelpfully faulted at numerous moments during the game.
Slade was granted a chance to ease the tension with a penalty, but it rebounded dismally off the post. Each turnover or penalty for Exeter was greeted by a roar, and each for Northampton, who were tackling with vindictive aggression, was met by a frustrated moan.
With a couple of minutes left, Northampton’s Manoa connected with a typically monstrous tackle and grabbed hold of the ball with his feet grounded to set up another penalty, which was kicked to touch. Line-outs followed, with the Saints camped out on the opposing tryline.
At 15-8, a converted try would have drawn them level with Exeter. Eventually, though, the moment of relief came; Chiefs won a scrum and the referee called for time.
Proceedings ended with 10,000 spectators (minus the Saints support) yelling the Tomahawk Chop song in unison.bookmark me