For "nearly" read "nowhere" in sport, but Exeter deserved great credit for how close they came yesterday to inflicting only a fourth home defeat on Northampton in three and a half years. A knock-on here or a missed tackle there in the final quarter might have completed a gigantic upset. The Chiefs played beautiful catch-up rugby during that period when the home side had a man in the sin-bin and – to judge by the way they had emptied their bench – one eye on the Heineken Cup.
Chris Budgen, the Exeter tighthead prop formerly of Saints' parish, had received a standing ovation while warming up but the home punters were not so sure about their old friend when Budgen burrowed over for the Chiefs' first try after 69 minutes. The Saints centre Jon Clarke had just been shown a yellow card for his team's persistent offside. Soon after, an agonisingly tiny fumble had cost Tom Johnson a try as he dived over the Northampton line, before the Exeter back-rower expertly fixed two Saints defenders to make a score at the corner for his full-back, Luke Arscott. It had all reduced Saints' lead from 18 to six and there was relief as they saw out the remaining three minutes for a win which kept them just behind London Irish at the top of the Premiership.
Not everyone was willing to hail the Chiefs. "Exeter came here with the intention of slowing things down," said Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby. "Every scrum, there was an injury, and it's an interesting way to do things, but they are probably pleased with the bonus point." Mallinder's Exeter counterpart Rob Baxter certainly was – but more so with the recovery from the previous week's 40-point hammering at Harlequins. "We're learning how to back ourselves," said Baxter. "Some teams have crumbled in the face of Northampton's scrum. We certainly didn't."
The Saints lost their unbeaten record this season at Saracens last week and they solved two potential worries for this match – the hit-and-miss goal-kicking of Shane Geraghty and the continued absence of Chris Ashton on the right wing – by unleashing two not-so-secret weapons in Bruce Reihana, with 629 kicking points in his Saints career, and Paul Diggin, who had 45 tries before yesterday. Reihana took the tee from Geraghty, who was said to have had a groin problem in midweek, to thump a penalty over from the 10-metre line after 10 minutes, and another from shorter range five minutes later, which took Reihana's career points total for Saints, including tries, past 1,000.
When Diggin battered past Haydn Thomas for a try at the right corner, converted by Reihana wide out, all appeared sweet for the Saints. Instead they had a rare old battle at the scrum and at the breakdown, and by half-time it was 16-9 after another penalty from Reihana and two for Steenson.
Exeter's debutant wing, Sireli Naqelevuki, had missed a fine chance very early on, when he scooped up a fumble between Reihana and Ben Foden but was quickly caught by Foden. Penalties by Reihana after 41 and 48 minutes moved Saints 13 points ahead for the second time and they succeeded where Exeter failed by executing a catch-and-drive try, finished by Tonga'uiha. But it needed Saints tackling of rare relish and power to hold Exeter's late surges, and keep Northampton thinking positively of Friday night's European meeting with Castres, for which Ashton should be fit from his foot injury.
Northampton Saints B Foden; B Reihana, J Clarke, J Downey (J Ansbro 51-56, 62), P Diggin; S Geraghty (S Myler, 56), L Dickson (R Powell, 70); S Tonga'uiha (R Dreyer, 64), B Sharman (A Long, 64), E Murray (B Mujati, 64), C Lawes (M Sorenson, 56), C Day, P Dowson (capt), R Wilson (M Easter, 62), C Clark.
Exeter Chiefs L Arscott; S Naqelevuki, P Dollman (R Davis, 70), B Rennie (M Jess, 63), M Foster; G Steenson, H Thomas (J Poluleuligaga, 22); B Sturgess, N Clark (S Alcott, 51), H Tui (C Budgen, 51), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (D Gannon, 70), C Slade, T Johnson, J Scaysbrook.
Referee JP Doyle (London).