Exeter keep pressure on Saracens with victory over Northampton
Exeter produced a strong second-half rally against Northampton to win a fierce contest 20-12 at Sandy Park and maintain the pressure on Saracens at the top of the Aviva Premiership table.
A lethargic Exeter trailed 12-3 at half-time but after the interval the Chiefs dominated to be deserved winners.
Olly Woodburn scored the Exeter try with Gareth Steenson kicking five penalties to take him to 182 points in the league this season. Saints scored two tries through Lee Dickson and Ken Pisi with JJ Hanrahan converting one.
Exeter suffered a blow when Phil Dollman was a late withdrawal with a calf injury. Australia international Lachlan Turner came in at full-back for his Chiefs debut.
Exeter missed a golden opportunity to open the scoring in the fifth minute. From a line-out in the visitors' 22 a loose throw caught out the Northampton defence for Ian Whitten to break through. The centre appeared to have the momentum to score himself but he elected to pass to Henry Slade, who knocked on with the line at his mercy.
However, Chiefs maintained their momentum to dominate the opening period and were rewarded when Steenson put them ahead with a penalty.
Back came Saints with the opening try after 14 minutes when skipper Dickson nipped over after a period of sustained pressure from the visitors.
Minutes later, Exeter suffered a further setback when Whitten limped off to be replaced by Sam Hill and there could have been another blow for them but Hanrahan's long-range penalty attempt went badly astray.
Exeter's woes continued when they conceded a second try after 33 minutes. It was a superb score as Saints produced some splendid handling from deep inside their own half to tear the home defence to shreds.
Ben Foden made the initial burst before Hanrahan and Jamie Gibson made vital contributions for Pisi to score. Hanrahan's conversion gave his side a deserved 12-3 interval lead.
With the wind advantage in the second half, Exeter started strongly after the resumption but careless handling and poor ball retention prevented them from capitalising.
When Saints hooker Mike Haywood was sin-binned for killing the ball, Exeter looked to have the break they needed and so it proved when an excellently judged pass from Slade sent Woodburn over in the corner.
With 26 minutes to go, Exeter surprisingly replaced number eight Thomas Waldrom with Julian Salvi and at the same time, Saints introduced Tom Wood in place of Jon Fisher, who hobbled off.
Steenson's second penalty brought Exeter to within one point before Haywood returned with the experienced Stephen Myler brought on in place of Hanrahan as Saints attempted to close out the game.
A long-distance penalty attempt from Slade went narrowly wide as Exeter continued to totally dominate the second half. They should have scored their second try but Slade delivered a shocking pass to Woodburn and the chance was lost.
It seemed that the beleaguered Saints defence had to concede as they had been under the cosh for an extensive period.
Remarkably, they kept their line intact but three late penalties from Steenson secured the win and deprived Northampton of a vital bonus point.