Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs: Tom Vickers' big match preview

Fixture: Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs

Dan Biggar scored when Saints beat Exeter at Franklin's Gardens in December 2018
Dan Biggar scored when Saints beat Exeter at Franklin's Gardens in December 2018

Competition: Gallagher Premiership (round 18)

Venue: Franklin's Gardens, Northampton

Date and kick-off time: Friday, September 4, 2020

Weather: 15c, cloudy

Live television coverage: BT Sport 1

Referee: Luke Pearce (101st Premiership game)

Saints: Furbank; Tuala, Proctor, Hutchinson, Collins; Biggar, Taylor; van Wyk, Fish, Franks; Ribbans, Ratuniyarawa; Lawes, Tonks, Harrison (c).

Replacements: Matavesi, Auterac, Hill, Isiekwe, Adendorff, Mitchell, Francis, Naiyaravoro.

Exeter Chiefs: Hodge; O'Flaherty, Dollman, Hendrickson, Baldwin; Steenson, Hidalgo-Clyne; Hepburn, Yeandle (c), Francis; Dennis, S Skinner; Kirsten, Lonsdale, Armand.

Replacements: Innard, Keast, Petch, Price, Capstick, Snow, H Skinner, Wyatt.

Outs: Saints: Alex Coles (ankle), Harry Mallinder (knee), Ollie Sleightholme (hamstring), Connor Tupai (wrist), Alex Waller (achilles), Tom Wood (pulmonary embolism).

Most recent meeting: Sunday, February 23, 2020: Exeter Chiefs 57 Saints 7 (Gallagher Premiership)

Tom's preview: When the weekly pre-match stats pack arrived from Premiership Rugby, it's fair to say it didn't make pretty reading for those of a Saints persuasion.

It explained that Saints have won just twice in the last nine rounds of Premiership action, both away from home, at Worcester and at London Irish.

It said Saints have slipped to five straight defeats at Franklin’s Gardens in Premiership Rugby to equal their worst ever home run in the competition, originally set in 2004.

And then it added more misery by running through Exeter's recent record.

Rob Baxter's side have won their last five Premiership fixtures, four with maximum league points, since losing 34-30 at Harlequins on February 29.

That defeat was their first on the road in any competition since their loss at Bath in October.

It stated that Exeter have lost only one of their last eight meetings with Saints in all competitions: 31-28 at the Gardens in December 2018.

But finally a glimmer of hope arrived, with the last line stating that Exeter have won just once at Saints since 2014: a 35-14 success in December 2017.

Those are largely sobering statistics, and Saints full-back George Furbank said this week: "Exeter are flying high, aren't they?

"Even when they put out what is supposed to be a second string team, they still seem to be carving up.

"It's going to be a big challenge but one we're excited for and hopefully we can put in a performance on Friday.

"We've got five games left and three of them are against the top three (Saints also face Bristol and Sale before the season is out).

"We've made it a mountain to climb and it's a big mountain but we're excited and we know we've got to get our heads down and work as hard as possible to grind out victories."

Saints go into Friday's game sitting sixth, seven points adrift of the top four.

They were beaten 30-17 at Harlequins last Sunday as more possession and territory went to waste.

It has been a theme of their 2020 as they have often flattered to deceive.

And how badly they need to deliver on some of their promise this week.

The next nine days couldn't be much tougher for them as they take on title hopefuls Exeter and Bristol before going to local rivals Leicester.

It is officially make or break time in terms of a Premiership campaign that many think is already irretrievable.

But if they could somehow summon the kind of performance they have put on a couple of times against Exeter in recent years, they have a chance.

The Chiefs may have rested big names, but the side they have picked is largely the one that secured a sensational success at Bristol recently.

It is a formidable unit, full of formidable units.

But by a simple law of averages, Saints have surely got to win soon.

They have to find a way to stop Exeter dominating the close contact areas.

And they have to be pretty close to flawless to finally get the win they want.

They have been full of flaws during the past month, but this has to be the time it finally comes together for Chris Boyd's side.

If not, their play-off flame won't be a flicker any longer. It will be fully extinguished.

Tom's prediction: Saints have surely got to win at home at some point, haven't they? And what better time to do it than with the leaders in town? I might be crazy, but I'm keeping the faith for one more game and backing Saints to finally deliver the morale-boosting victory they so desperately need. Saints 25 Exeter 23.