Exeter Chiefs 40-21 Northampton Saints (21-21)
Exeter Chiefs secured top spot in the Gallagher Premiership table as they scored six tries to power past Northampton Saints with a clinical second-half performance.
Saints failed to score a point in the second half, but were guaranteed a place in the top four courtesy of Harlequins’ 27-25 defeat at the hands of Wasps.
Chiefs would have finished top regardless of the result at Sandy Park after Saracens were beaten 31-29 at Worcester, but this win will stand them in good stead for the repeat of this fixture that will take place in next week’s semi-final.
Saints, who attacked with quality and flair throughout a thrilling first half, were ahead inside two minutes as Piers Francis crashed over from close range after a break from Ahsee Tuala.
Ollie Devoto’s beautifully weighted grubber kick sent Henry Slade over to level the scores, but Saints soon regained the lead as Rory Hutchinson put his side in the lead.
Exeter were back level again through Ben Moon, and for the first time as Don Armand scored on his 100th appearance, but Saints levelled before the break as Premiership Player of the Year nominee Cobus Reinach intercepted and ran the length of the field.
But Chiefs, beaten only once at Sandy Park all season, took control in the second half and were rewarded with tries for Matt Kvesic, Dave Dennis and Luke Cowan-Dickie as they pulled away to secure a first-place finish for the second consecutive season.
Saints Fly Out of the Blocks in Top Four Charge
Before kick-off, Saints knew that anything other than a win would put their top-four hopes at risk.
Inside two minutes the hosts were stunned as a stunning over-the-top pass from Dan Biggar set Jamie Gibson free, and after a fine dummy on the outside he fed Ahsee Tuala who was tackled just short, before Piers Francis finished from close range. Biggar converted for a 7-0 lead.
They had the better of the first ten minutes, but a scrum penalty gave Exeter field position for the first time, and after phases around the 22, Chiefs struck back as Devoto put through a lovely grubber for Henry Slade, who gathered well to go over. Joe Simmonds converted to level the scores.
After Olly Woodburn had a superb try harshly ruled out for a forward pass, Saints took full advantage as Rory Hutchinson went over after Tuala and Cobus Reinach had helped them to power into the 22 once again.
Woodburn thought he had gone over for a superb score early on
Chiefs hit back but head in level
Coming off the back of patchy recent form, Chiefs made a sloppy start and deservedly trailed heading into the last ten minutes of the first half, but a double salvo of well-built scores took them into the lead.
Ben Moon drove over from close range after Nic White did incredibly well to gather from the back of a lineout before Saints fly-half Biggar kicked straight out from the restart to hand chiefs a scrum.
From the resulting penalty, Slade found an excellent touch, as he had done throughout the first half, and once again Exeter showed their quality and clinical ability in the 22, as Don Armand carried over to the delight of the home fans.
Chiefs looked to be heading in at half-time with the Bonus Point wrapped up, as Cuthbert burst up the field and Saints’ Courtney Lawes was sent to the sin-bin for slowing down the rapid Chiefs possession.
He was joined in the sin-bin by Alex Waller, but as Exeter tried to seal the score with a backs move, Reinach popped up and ran the length of the field with an intelligent interception deep into overtime to level the scores at the break.
Chiefs Find Form as Saints’ Discipline Falters
Mentally, the blow on the stroke of half-time would have likely been tough to stomach for Chiefs, but they were blessed with a two-man advantage as the second half got underway.
Saints showed resilience in defence, repeatedly repelling brutal Exeter pressure, but poor discipline allowed Exeter too many opportunities. Eventually they took one, as Matt Kvesic broke away from a maul to bag Exeter the bonus point as he leapt over the line.
Soon, Dave Dennis coasted over in similarly comfortable fashion after beautiful line allowed him a free run to the tryline and he dived over under the sticks for Chiefs’ fifth.
Saints thought they had scored their own bonus point try as they broke up the right through Hutchinson and kicked through, but was deemed to have knocked on in his finish.
And it was Exeter who rubbed salt into the wounds as Cowan-Dickie snuck over for Exeter’s sixth in a win likely to give them confidence ahead of next week’s semi-final clash.