Chiefs give Saints the chop
March 6, 2011
Chiefs give Saints the chop%]
Exeter Chiefs delivered the latest hammer blow to Northampton Saints' Aviva Premiership title aspirations with an impressive 30-9 win at Sandy Park.
Tries from skipper Tommy Hayes, centre Sireli Naqelevuki and flanker Tom Johnson propelled the hosts to a deserved victory and condemned Saints to their sixth straight Premiership defeat. The boot of fly-half Stephen Myler had given the visitors a 9-3 lead at the break but they had little answer to a second half blitz from an increasingly assured Chiefs side.
Northampton, including England lock Courtney Lawes in his first game back from a knee injury, made a bright start with No.8 Mark Easter and flanker Phil Dowson making big gains and that pressure led to a penalty at an early scrum that Myler kicked to open the scores. The Chiefs responded well with Steenson orchestrating a promising break that was brought to a halt by Saints hooker Brett Sharman - but illegally - and Steenson brought his side level from the kicking tee.
The Chiefs were soon under pressure again and were forced to pull down a maul inside their own 22 to thwart the Saints' next raid and Myler made them pay with his second penalty. The Northampton playmaker was handed another opportunity to add to his tally when Exeter's Luke Arscott was penalised for coming in from the side at a ruck on halfway but on this occasion he saw his long-range effort drift wide.
The home side were forced to put boot to ball in the hope of gaining a foothold in the territorial battle but made little headway against a committed Saints side. They had a little more joy with ball in hand and earned a scrum feed on the Saints 22 but an accidental offside robbed them of the ball and momentum. The home side re-grouped with prop Chris Budgen working hard at the coalface and that pressure brought reward in the form of an offside penalty in midfield but Steenson' eminently kickable chance sailed wide.
In a classic counter punch, Myler pounced for an interception and raced up to the Exeter 22 and while he lacked the pace to carry him to the line a penalty against Chiefs No.8 Richard Baxter enabled him to extend his side's lead to six points at the break.
Exeter's Gareth Steenson stretches the Northampton defence © Getty Images
The second half exploded into life with a great break from Exeter scrum-half Haydn Thomas that took his side into their rivals' 22. The ball was recycled and hooker Neil Clark went close to burrowing over before Northampton were penalised for offside. Steenson stepped up to land his second penalty and another offside offence a couple of minutes later was given the same treatment to bring the sides level.
Northampton continued to feel the force of the referee's whistle with the Exeter scrum drawing the next penalty and on this occasion Steenson kicked to touch. A powerful drive off the resulting lineout took the hosts deep into the Northampton 22 where the Chiefs' forwards peppered the line before the ball was switched to the shortside where Hayes was able to cross unopposed. An excellent conversion from Steenson cemented their lead but they were not finished there.
A tantalising chip ahead from Thomas was plucked out of the air by giant Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo who left Saints fullback Bruce Reihana in his wake before flicking a pass to Naqelevuki and the centre raced away to score in the corner and lay claim to one of the tries of the season.
The Chiefs showed no signs of letting up but a moment of magic saw the momentum swing in Northampton's favour albeit briefly. Replacement fullback Shane Geraghty collected the ball deep inside his own half before setting on a mazy run upfield and past a succession of defenders. The cover finally closed him down but not before he had put in a clever grubber kick that Steenson was forced to sweep into touch inside his own 22.
Saints turned the screw in the hope of breaching a well-disciplined Exeter defence but a huge tackle from winger Nic Sestaret dislodged the ball and laid the foundation for another breakaway score. Johnson latched onto the loose ball before showing an impressive turn of speed that carried him all the way to his side's third try that was converted by Steenson.
A scrum penalty inside the Exeter 22 offered Northampton a lifeline and a good pass from Geraghty found Reihana out wide but the Kiwi was bundled into touch in emphatic fashion. Within moments they were back under pressure in the shadow of their own posts and a scrum penalty allowed the Chiefs to kick to the corner in search of a bonus point try. The ball was retained at the lineout but Nadolo failed to secure the resulting cross kick.
With the clock running down another Geraghty-inspired break faltered on the Exeter 22 before replacement Matt Jess produced a burst of speed down the touchline only to be caught by Saints sub Greig Tonks and there was still time for Sestaret to be sin-binned for knocking the ball away but it could not sour a great win for the Chiefs.
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