E xeter Chiefs defeated Northampton Saints 43-28 at Sandy Park as five current-or-former University of Exeter students made an appearance in the Anglo-Welsh Cup fixture.
The Chiefs began brightly with ball in hand, attacking the Saints in the wide channels. Northampton lock James Craig was forced off early with a head injury incurred during his own illegally high tackle, but Exeter continued their attacking momentum, moving the ball through the hands to get into the 22. The visitors were forced into conceding a series of penalties, and Exeter’s decision to turn down the option of 3 points was swiftly rewarded.
From a scrum, Exeter went wide, and when the ball came back to the left, outside-half Joe Simmonds sent a cross-field kick into the waiting arms of James Short who dotted down for the opening score, Simmonds’s adding the conversion from out wide.
Northampton didn’t take long to reply. A break down the middle of the field by Saints’s scrum-half Cobus Reinach was excellently followed up by Ken Pisi and Stephen Myler. Despite a brilliant covering tackle by Ollie Devoto, Myler popped the ball off the floor to send George Furbank under the posts, an easy conversion levelling the scores at 7-7 on 15 minutes.
“the home side’s forward power was starting to tell”
Exeter responded with some physical carrying in the middle, and Northampton were forced into two more injury replacements – Christian Day and George Furbank made way as Mitch Eadie and Tom Emery came on. The home side’s forward power was starting to tell, and the infamous Exeter maul gave the platform for the Chiefs’s second try. After a solid rumble, scrum-half Will Chudley fed Devoto before receiving the ball on a wrap around following the centre’s powerful carry. Some great hands nearly saw Exeter University’s Sal M’boge get across the whitewash, but instead his drive set up replacement Toby Salmon who carried two defenders over the line to score in the corner.
Both teams were clearly looking to play attacking rugby, utilising the unseasonably warm November weather to keep the ball in hand and go through the phases. After a decent period of possession in the midfield, Tom Hendrickson spotted a mismatch in the midfield and beat his man on the outside. The centre ignored Chudley on his shoulder – despite the scrum-half appearing perfectly placed to score – but the ball was eventually recycled between the forwards and Alex Hepburn eventually drove over, the conversion making it 19-7 just after the first quarter.
Following that try, Northampton began to settle, and although Exeter’s forwards and defence – as well as their composure and clinical finishing with ball in hand – was proving the difference between the two sides, Saints’s scrum-half Cobus Reinach was beginning to boss the game with some deft handling. His offloading in the 22 saw Northampton over the Exeter line, but the referee pulled them back for a knock-on in the lead up.
“the visitors finally got on the score sheet”
That lack of composure was in evidence shortly after. Reinach was prominent in the build up as, once again, they found themselves over the try line, but once more it was pulled back, this time for a forward pass. Another period of concerted pressure saw Northampton gain a penalty where they opted to kick to the corner; despite some great maul defence by the Chiefs, the visitors finally got their second score on the half-hour.
South African Reinach brought centre Tom Stephenson in on a short ball to bring them to Exeter’s 5m line. Some muscular work from the Saints’s forwards saw the ball come back to Stephenson again, and the centre wriggled over the line, Myler adding the extras to bring the men in green back within five points on the scoreboard.
After Exeter’s good early pressure, the momentum was very much with the visitors, with the Chiefs unable to get the go forward ball they needed. Struggling to make the gain-line, it was M’boge who was tasked with sparking the home side back into gear.
A great step down the right by the full-back drew the Northampton defence in before he was eventually hauled down. The Chiefs secured the quick ball, Simmonds sending it into the wide channels where Ollie Atkins made the break, drawing the man to put James Freeman one on one with Emery. In something of a mismatch, the Chiefs flanker battered over the replacement back, stretching over to secure the try-bonus point. Simmonds landed another difficult conversion to put the Chiefs 12 points clear just before half-time.
Exeter weren’t done yet, though, and a break down the right by winger Tom O’Flaherty was eventually smothered as Northampton were forced into conceding a lineout 5 metres from their own line. To a raucous Tomahawk chop, the Chiefs set up the maul and it was almost a formality that the try would follow, hooker Elvis Taione claiming the score. With the conversion hitting the post, Exeter went into the changing room 31-14 up at half-time.
“o’flaherty was a grateful recipient”
The second half saw a more composed start by both teams as they canceled each other out in an attacking sense. It took an Exeter scrum penalty in the 49th minute to fire the home side up again. Simmonds kicked for the corner. A wonderful set piece peel from the lineout saw Freeman and then Matt Kvesic go close, before Simmonds flicked it back to the blindside where O’Flaherty was the grateful recipient, diving over unopposed in the corner to give the Chiefs a four-score lead.
Three minutes later and Exeter had another, Salmon again going over after a string of carries in the Northampton 22. At 43-14 with 25 minutes to play, that score ended the game a contest, and what had begun as a balmy afternoon became something more ominous as the heavens opened overhead.
Inevitably, the game began to break up, and both teams looked to empty their benches. For the Chiefs, their alumni contingent grew as Tom Lawday, Sam Hill, and Jack Maunder came into the fray, with current student Sam Morley also making an appearance.
As the intensity dropped a level, the home-side appeared happy to try and run the clock down, and Northampton took that opportunity to deliver a counter-blow by snatching a try with just over ten minutes to play. After an infringement in the Northampton half, replacement scrum-half Alex Mitchell reacted quickest, tapping a quick penalty before chipping over the solid defensive line where winger Juan Pablo Estelles gathered the ball to run in from forty metres.
The scorer turned provider three minutes later. The Argentine winger stepped inside a weak shoulder in the midfield before finding Rory Hutchinson, the centre evading the final defender to sprint over and give Northampton a glimmer of hope – and a try bonus points – at 43-28.
As it was, Exeter were able to hold out the visitors to deny them a losing bonus point. Sam Skinner nearly rounded off an excellent day for the Chiefs and Exeter University when he scooped up a loose ball outside the 22, blasting through an attempted tackle and driving his way to within three metres of the line. Despite their absence from the scoresheet, EURFC’s contingent made a significant contribution to what was an emphatic victory for the Chiefs.