Exeter still on path to glory after seeing off
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.
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.