Ex­eter still on path to glory af­ter see­ing off

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Rugby Union - DEPUTY RUGBY CORRESPOND­ENT at Sandy Park Ski Sun­day

Daniel Schofield 38 15 Ex­eter Chiefs ad­vanced to the Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nals for the first time, but this was not the pro­ces­sion ev­ery­one ex­pected af­ter a hugely tena­cious per­for­mance by Northamp­ton Saints.

Com­ing into the game bereft of con­fi­dence and di­rec­tion af­ter six de­feats in seven games since the restart, Northamp­ton went toe to toe with the Premier­ship lead­ers for large parts of this game, dis­rupt­ing their line-out and at­tack­ing the break­down. Lewis Lud­lam and Court­ney Lawes car­ried and tack­led like dervishes, while out­side cen­tre Fraser Ding­wall was out­stand­ing.

Yet in terms of in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions, no one on ei­ther side could sur­pass Em­manuel Iyo­gun.

In­juries to four se­nior loose­head props meant the 19-year-old, re­cently con­verted from No8, was plunged into front-line duty far ahead of sched­ule. In his trial by fire, Iyo­gun with­stood the heat of the Ex­eter scrum and even won a cou­ple of penal­ties to boot.

Ex­eter’s vic­tory owed less to their col­lec­tive ex­cel­lence than a few in­di­vid­ual sparks of bril­liance. Jack Now­ell and Jac­ques Ver­meulen scored two ex­cel­lent solo tries while an­other slalom­ing run from Henry Slade set up scrum-half Jack Maun­der for his score. The other two tries, fin­ished by Ver­meulen and Jonny Hill, were from more pro­saic pick-and-go ef­forts that made a 23-point mar­gin of vic­tory seem a lot more com­fort­able than it was.

Di­rec­tor of rugby Rob Bax­ter knows full well that Ex­eter can­not al­low their stan­dards to slip in the semi-fi­nal against Toulouse on Satur­day, but is con­fi­dent they will rise to the chal­lenge against the four­time cham­pi­ons. “We can throw it all out there,” Bax­ter said. “It’s ex­actly what we need. The big­ger the name and the big­ger the game the bet­ter for us.

“The ev­ery­thing-to-lose feel­ing was a big test of char­ac­ter for us.

“We did not re­ally know any­thing about what Northamp­ton would bring and how they would be, so that was not great for us. But we dealt with it. Ul­ti­mately we need a big chal­lenge to get the best out of our­selves. We’ll be right on it. I am look­ing for­ward to see­ing us per­form be­cause our fo­cus will be a lot more ze­roed in than it was to­day.”

The nervous en­ergy around Ex­eter’s per­for­mance was ev­i­dent early on as hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie could not hit his tar­get on his open­ing two line-out throws. From the sec­ond of those, Ding­wall sent in a clever grub­ber that Now­ell gath­ered only to be bun­dled over in­side his own in-goal area.

Ex­eter Northamp­ton

Iyo­gun with­stood his first test at the scrum and from the pick-and-go se­ries Ex­eter con­ceded a penalty, al­low­ing Dan Big­gar to kick Northamp­ton into a fully mer­ited early lead. When Northamp­ton turned over an Ex­eter maul that was gath­er­ing a head of steam, it seemed like a big mo­ment and the vis­it­ing team cel­e­brated ac­cord­ingly.

Maybe that was their mis­take. From the re­sult­ing scrum, CowanDicki­e stole the put-in against the head. The ball was moved swiftly into the hands of that Rolls-Royce of a cen­tre Slade. He al­ways looks to be glid­ing rather than sprint­ing but can leave de­fend­ers clutch­ing thin air with the slight­est feint, which he pro­duced, to break the line past Ding­wall. He then demon­strated his strength in hand­ing off Rory Hutchin­son be­fore step­ping past Henry Tay­lor and feed­ing Maun­der for the score.

Ex­eter kept up their pres­sure and scored a sec­ond try af­ter 25 min­utes. Stu­art Hogg ini­ti­ated the at­tack by run­ning the ball out of his 22. On it went through the out­stand­ing Sam Sim­monds and Tom O’Fla­herty un­til Ex­eter ma­noeu­vred them­selves into the Saints 22. From there, the for­wards did the rest with

Match win­ners: Ex­eter’s Jac­ques Ver­meulen goes over for one of his two tries, while Jack Now­ell (be­low) was also among the scor­ers

Ver­meulen even­tu­ally go­ing over. At that point, you would have thought Ex­eter would cruise to vic­tory but Northamp­ton dealt the Chiefs a taste of their own medicine as they mauled their way over the try line, courtesy of cap­tain Teimana Har­ri­son to leave the score tan­ta­lis­ingly poised at 14-10 at the break.

The next score felt cru­cial and it was Now­ell who seized the ini­tia­tive. At a time when

is tra­di­tion­ally shown on a Sun­day night, Now­ell dis­played his down­hill slalom­ing tech­nique, weav­ing be­tween the tack­les of Dave Rib­bans, Hutchin­son, Tay­lor and fi­nally Ge­orge Fur­bank to give Ex­eter breath­ing space.

Fur­bank was hav­ing a rough time of it. The Eng­land full-back gath­ered Slade’s grub­ber only to be pul­verised by Ian Whit­ten and con­cede a penalty. Ex­eter kicked to the cor­ner and Hill scored from the in­evitable pushover try.

Even with de­feat all but as­sured, Northamp­ton con­tin­ued to make life dif­fi­cult for Ex­eter. Iyo­gun, who di­rec­tor of rugby Chris Boyd said had a “re­mark­able shift”, won a penalty at the break­down. In a well­worked line-out move, re­place­ment hooker James Fish was fed ball off the top and his in­side ball was met by Ding­wall run­ning an ex­cel­lent at­tack­ing line against the grain to score Northamp­ton’s sec­ond try. By now many of the Northamp­ton play­ers were out on their feet and that showed in the fi­nal Ex­eter try when Ver­meulen burst through some tired tack­les to give the score­line an added gloss.

As a tune-up per­for­mance this was per­fect prac­tice for Ex­eter. Now the real busi­ness awaits.

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