Exeter 38-15 Northampton: Chiefs make first ever Champions Cup semi-final
Exeter to face Toulouse in club's first Champions Cup semi-final next Saturday (September 26) after victory
By Michael Cantillon at Sandy Park
Last Updated: 26/09/20 3:21pm
Exeter Chiefs progressed to a first Champions Cup semi-final in their history as they overcame a gutsy Northampton Saints side to win 38-15 at an unseasonably warm Sandy Park.
Tries from Jack Maunder, Jacques Vermeulen (two), Jack Nowell and Jonny Hill, plus the flawless boot of skipper Joe Simmonds garnered Exeter's points from a performance which, though far from perfect, displayed the talent they possess within their squad.
Saints scored tries through Teimana Harrison and Fraser Dingwall, and were well within the contest for large parts - the first half saw them have 73 per cent territory and 65 per cent possession - but ultimately fell short to superior opposition.
Though Saints conceded a penalty seconds into the contest, the visitors started far the better, as Exeter began the quarter-final by losing their opening two lineout throws - the set-piece an imperative facet to any Chiefs display.
As it was, Northampton would make Exeter pay for their sluggishness from the off as they caught Nowell within his own in-goal after Stuart Hogg had passed back under huge pressure, and then hammered away at the Chiefs line before forcing the concession of a breakdown penalty, which Dan Biggar struck over for the opening points.
In truth, such was the intensity of pressure they had just been under, Exeter may well have been relieved Northampton chose to take the points, particularly as Saints scrum-half Taylor had chosen to snipe round the edge when his side had men out wide facing no defenders.
Northampton's promising and competitive start to proceedings at both ends continued after the restart when wing Matt Proctor won a breakdown penalty in his 22 and allowed for more territory and possession in the Exeter half - though a couple of Biggar cross-field kick options failed to come off.
Saints produced a superb choke tackle soon after, quelling an Exeter maul drive, but as concentration levels dipped momentarily by the visitors, they were ruthlessly punished.
At the consequent scrum, Exeter won the ball against the head with a superb drive before quick ball saw centre Henry Slade take possession and glide between Northampton centres Dingwell and Rory Hutchinson in superb fashion, before feeding scrum-half Maunder on his shoulder, who just had enough momentum to make it over and ground.
That Exeter try came after the Chiefs' very first visit into the Saints 22, and moments later the home side struck again.
Full-back Hogg thrillingly broke from his own half, displaying sensational acceleration and footwork, before No 8 Sam Simmonds was next to have a telling impact as he sucked two defenders in with a strong carry.
When Northampton gave away a penalty for offside, Exeter took a quick-tap and within seconds flanker Vermeulen was over after a pick-and-jam from close-range with Simmonds on his shoulder. The South African back-row notching his eighth try of a fantastic debut season.
Into the final five minutes of the half, a strong Lewis Ludlam carry and Proctor line-break almost saw Saints in, while Hutchinson made another menacing break thereafter as Northampton continually turned down prospective penalty shots for kicks to the corner.
Eventually they were rewarded when a perfectly formed rolling maul could not be stopped from five metres, and No 8 Harrison touched down at the back of it. When Biggar converted brilliantly from out wide, the gap was just four points.
An Exeter offside after a knock on allowed Saints one more chance into the final minute of the half, and though Taylor stepped through into the Chiefs 22, he lost his footing before prop Manny Iyogun gave away a crucial penalty by going off feet.
Chiefs began the second half in far more energetic verve, producing quick ball regularly, and less than two minutes into it wing Nowell scored a magnificent solo try, picking up the ball just past the Saints 10-metre line, before jinking and slaloming past five defenders to score.
Saints responded immediately and were hard done by when referee Matthew Carley decreed Exeter to have legally halted a Saints maul - replays showed Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie coming in from the side.
Back-to-back errors from Saints put Exeter deep within the Northampton 22 within a matter a minutes - Taylor kicking out on the full, Harrison coming in at the side of a ruck - and though the Chiefs wouldn't strike instantly, they would soon enough.
A Saints maul turnover granted brief reprieve, but when Slade kicked down the right wing and Saints flew into the side of a desperate resulting breakdown, the Chiefs were characteristically deadly from close-range - lock Hill taking contact before reaching out to score.
From the restart, Iyogun got over the ball to win a breakdown penalty, allowing Biggar to kick to the corner again, and this time centre Dingwall finished sensationally, cutting through off a lineout and past four Chiefs defenders.
Simmonds kicked three more points for Exeter when Iyogun was penalised for collapsing at the scrum, stretching the lead to 31-15 soon after, while excellent maul defence from Sam Skinner kept Northampton out at the other end.
A sequence of Chiefs penalties within their own 22 saw Saints kick to the corner four times, but in the end replacement hooker James Fish overthrew at a five-metre lineout and any faint hopes of a revival evaporated.
With two minutes left on the clock, man-of-the-match Vermeulen put gloss onto the scoreline when he rode a tackle, skipped past two defenders and then stepped one more en route to a wonderful try.