Tom Vickers’ Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs review and player ratings

BRIGHT SPARK - Tom Stephenson was Saints' best player against Exeter (pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)

BRIGHT SPARK - Tom Stephenson was Saints' best player against Exeter (pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)

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They came, they kicked, they conquered.

For the second time in the calendar year, Exeter Chiefs found a way to frustrate Saints and wreck a proud record.

Back in March, it was a 13-match winning streak that came crashing down around Northampton ears as Rob Baxter’s men won the LV= Cup final battle at Sandy Park.

And on Friday night, it was Saints’ unbeaten home run that reached its conclusion as Jim Mallinder’s men lost at Franklin’s Gardens for the first time since March.

Saints had slayed all-comers this season, often in ruthless fashion.

But the Chiefs do not go with the grain.

The personification of plucky, they find ways to win against the odds.

This time, it was by surrendering possession and seeking territory, kicking the ball at almost every opportunity.

Saints had their destiny in their own hands throughout the game, but, especially during the first half, they surrendered their chances meekly.

The first period was rugby’s best imitation of table tennis, with the ball going back to the opposition as quickly as it had been received.

But that simply played into Exeter hands as, having scored inside the opening two minutes, they continued to seize their opportunities when they came.

They frustrated Saints and then, when the home side became so desperate that they forced things, Thomas ‘The Tank’ Waldrom intercepted a Stephen Myler pass and charged home.

That handed the Chiefs and eight-point lead and, psychologically, it was a hammer blow for a Saints side so used to starting well.

They had scored six tries in the opening 20 minutes of league games heading into this one, conceding none.

But the Chiefs charge caught them cold and it was downhill from there for the opening 40 minutes.

A second-half fightback did finally materialise, but it was to be too little too late, with Exeter celebrating with real fervour at the final whistle.

And why not?

It was their first Premiership victory at Franklin’s Gardens.

A monumental effort.

For Saints, it was a night to forget and move on from.

They were without eight internationals, and there was no doubt someone like George North would have made a huge difference with so much possession to feast on.

But perhaps their downfall came from the internationals who were in the side.

With players like Lee Dickson and Myler so keen to make an impression to catapult them back into the England reckoning, they tried a little too hard.

Luther Burrell, with an attempted chip over the final defender, was also guilty of that.

And in the end, the best Saints performers were the ones who have yet to sample the senior international scene.

Centre Tom Stephenson provided a constant spark, with his strong running and intelligence catching the eye.

Wing Jamie Elliott, too, was impish, doing his best to evade the attentions of an Exeter defence who suffocated Saints.

Those players deservedly wrote their names on the scoresheet during a stirring final fling from their side.

But it was to be the Chiefs who were left toasting another valiant victory.

How they rated...

BEN FODEN

Not the best of nights for the full-back, who kicked a lot of ball into Exeter hands during the first half and whose attempts to break through were shut down by the Chiefs... 5

JAMIE ELLIOTT

A lively display from the wing, who did everything he could to find gaps in the Exeter rearguard and eventually scored a fine try... 7

TOM STEPHENSON

Easily the pick of the Saints bunch, the young centre was involved in almost all that was good about his team’s display, capping his impressive performance with a score... 8

LUTHER BURRELL

Made some typically powerful runs that kept Exeter on their toes, but was met with some strong resistance by the determined away defence... 6

TOM COLLINS

No time to make an impact as his brave early try-saving intervention cost him his place in the game... 6

STEPHEN MYLER

Not the greatest of nights for the usually assured fly-half, who saw his pass intercepted by Waldrom and who couldn’t get a grip of a scrappy game... 5

LEE DICKSON

Like Myler, couldn’t get the match by the scruff of the neck, and his usual passing accuracy was lacking as Saints failed to get into their stride in the first half... 5

ALEX WALLER

Not the easiest night up front as Exeter bossed the scrum battle, but did make a few useful contributions around the park... 6

MIKE HAYWOOD

Saw a try-scoring opportunity fall at his feet but Dickson’s pass proved too low for the hooker to gather. Otherwise, didn’t do too much wrong... 6

SALESI MA’AFU

Didn’t have the best of nights as the referee didn’t find favour with the Australian at the scrum and it cost his team on a few occasions... 5

SAMU MANOA

Started strongly, but was gradually beaten back by the Exeter rearguard. Couldn’t be faulted for effort and endeavour... 7

CHRISTIAN DAY

So used to making things tick, the lock was unable to assert his usual authority during the first half as the ball flew from one half to the other... 6

CALUM CLARK

Still did a good job at the breakdown as Saints constantly wrestled possession from their opponents, but they couldn’t use it well enough... 6

BEN NUTLEY

Handed his first Premiership start of the season and it was not the easiest of nights for the fledgling back row forward... 6

PHIL DOWSON

Tried to rally his troops with some typically brave carries, but Exeter stood tall and frustrated the home forwards... 6

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

JAMES WILSON (for Collins 3)

Came into the action early on and did little wrong in a performance that may see him keep his place on the wing next week... 7

GARETH DENMAN (for Ma’afu 54)

Saints were struggling in the scrum battle when he came on and he did his best to steady the ship... 6

CHRON STAR MAN - Thomas Waldrom (Exeter Chiefs)