Exeter Chiefs 40 Northampton Saints 21: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

Saints and Exeter scrapped it out
Saints and Exeter scrapped it out

Following Saturday's game at Sandy Park, Saints boss Chris Boyd insisted there wasn't much delight in the away dressing room.

Boyd's side were disappointed with their defeat against table-topping Exeter Chiefs, having shipped 19 unanswered points during the second period.

Saints lost at Sandy Park but still secured a Premiership play-off place

Saints lost at Sandy Park but still secured a Premiership play-off place

Rory Hutchinson did almost score his second try of the game after the break, but that was as close as Saints got as the Chiefs did what they do best.

They just kept grinding the black, green and gold down and eventually overpowered them with their ferocious forward game.

Saints knew what to expect - they just couldn't deal with it after a hugely promising start to the match during which they again showcased their razor-sharp attacking game.

The likes of Ahsee Tuala, Hutchinson, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Cobus Reinach, who scored another stunning intercept try, all caused problems for the Chiefs, particularly out wide.

Teimana Harrison had another eventful game

Teimana Harrison had another eventful game

But after half-time, Exeter got a real grip on the game and showed why they have topped the regular-season table.

They will be big favourites to beat Saints again on Saturday and reach the Twickenham showpiece seven days later.

But whether they win or lose, Saints, who have reached the play-offs for the first time since topping the table in 2015, should be proud of what they have already achieved this season.

Boyd only took over last summer, assuming control of a team that desperately needed a lift after a few years spent in reverse.

Jamie Gibson was in action

Jamie Gibson was in action

During that time, Exeter were firmly going forward and the fact they finished 30 points ahead of Saints this season shows the gap between the clubs.

But they are in very different stages of the building process, and Saints have moved quicker than many would have expected this season.

Some will say they only won half of their matches and some will point out that they have racked up the lowest points total of any team to finish fourth in the Premiership.

But however they did it, finishing fourth is still a huge achievement, especially when you consider who finished bottom of the table.

Newcastle Falcons were the fourth-placed side last season but this relentless and hugely difficult season has seen them fall victim to relegation.

Someone had to go down, and it was always going to be a strong team rather than the cannon fodder that has been seen during some seasons in England's top flight.

Saints fans would have settled just for being safe after a difficult first half of the season, but the fact they now have a play-off semi-final to look forward to should be celebrated.

It should be celebrated by the fans and by the players who have endured some really tough times over recent years.

And it should be celebrated by the coaches and those in charge of the club, who have masterminded a huge amount of progress in such a short space of time.

It will take many more months for Saints to get to the levels they want to. To truly mix it in the league standings with the likes of Exeter and Saracens.

But the fact they get to mix it with them in the end-of-season shoot-out this year should be a cause for huge satisfaction at Franklin's Gardens.

And who knows - they might do more than compete with England's best over the next two weeks.

Because if Boyd has brought one thing more than any other to Saints, it is the chance to believe and dream again.

And Saints supporters should allow themselves to do that before the return to Sandy Park this weekend, despite what happened on their most recent visit to the stadium.

How they rated...

AHSEE TUALA

Was at the heart of Saints' slick start as he counter-attacked superbly and had Exeter scrambling all over the show, but saw less of the ball in the second half... 7

TOM COLLINS

Wasn't really able to make his usual attacking impact as Exeter stifled him well and also took him on defensively... 6

RORY HUTCHINSON

Showed his class yet again, scoring one try and almost grabbing a second in another creative display... 7

PIERS FRANCIS

Was forced off after taking a knock early in the second half, but had time to score a try in the first period, doing well to support Tuala... 6

TAQELE NAIYARAVORO

Looks much better defensively these days and was a threat in attack once more, with Exeter having to do some strong work to stop him... 7

DAN BIGGAR

Did some more great work under the high ball and also defended strongly as well as kicking well from the tee... 7

COBUS REINACH

Scored yet another stunning intercept try and was lively before suffering a knock that led to Saints taking him off early in the second half... 7

ALEX WALLER

Did not find favour with referee Karl Dickson at the scrum and was eventually sin-binned, but had earlier done well to hold up Exeter when they looked certain to score... 5

REECE MARSHALL

Didn't have any time to make an impact as he had to come off injured after just five minutes of the match

PAUL HILL

Got stuck in for his team but wasn't able to make a huge impact on a day when Exeter's forwards dominated... 6

ALEX MOON

Appeared to come through his return to action unscathed and his presence was welcome for Saints... 7

COURTNEY LAWES

Tried to stop an Exeter score and saw yellow for his intervention but he didn't do much else wrong in another strong showing... 6

JAMIE GIBSON

Impressed when Saints were on top early in the game, galloping down the wing and getting his passes away... 7

LEWIS LUDLAM

Was one of Saints' best players on the day as he constantly tried to drive his side forward with some trademark carries... 7

TEIMANA HARRISON

Got through plenty of work yet again, topping Saints' tackle count once more as he tried to combat Exeter... 7

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

JAMES FISH (for Marshall 5)

Returned from injury and got through the game well as he helped Saints to go ahead in the first half and then kept busy... 6

ALEX MITCHELL (for Reinach 46)

Exeter were on top when the scrum-half entered the game and he missed a couple of tackles as the Chiefs stormed forward... 5

LUTHER BURRELL (for Francis 53)

Will get at least one more game for Saints as they booked their place in the semi-finals but didn't have much front-foot ball to work with here... 5

DAVID RIBBANS (for Moon 57)

Saints will be delighted to have this man back from injury and they will hope he can have a big say at Sandy Park this Saturday... 5

TOM WOOD (for Ludlam 57)

Didn't get too long to impress but still got through plenty of work during his time on the field... 6

JAMES GRAYSON (for Biggar 59)

Kicked the ball straight out from a restart in the first half, which proved costly, but he didn't do too much else wrong... 5

CHRON STAR MAN - Matt Kvesic (Exeter)