It is three years since Exeter played host to Northampton on a sunny spring day in Devon, lost a tight game in front of a raucous full house, missed out on a Premiership semi-final as a consequence – and, if truth be told, retreated to the bar for a few pints of cider in a relieved frame of mind.
The altitude sickness they had suffered on their climb towards the top end of the table had left them feeling woozier than any common or garden night on the apples.
According to their rugby director, Rob Baxter, things are just a little different nowadays. “It used to scare us a bit, being third or fourth in the league,” he remarked after a deeply satisfying victory over the reigning champions that drove his team back into the play-off places.
“I don’t think we’re frightened of anything any more. People say we have the hardest run-in of any of the play-off contenders and they’re probably right, but if we turn up for each of our remaining games the way we turned up for this one…”
When a team has a blind-side flanker blessed with the iron strength, limitless lung capacity and cold-eyed intensity of Dave Ewers, fear is not likely to be a pressing concern. Had Don Corleone himself run into the England-qualified Zimbabwean forward at the wrong moment, he might have discovered a horse’s head in his own bed.
“It’s not for me to decide where Dave stands in any pecking order,” Baxter said when pressed on the back-rower’s chances of giving the England selectors something to think about this side of the World Cup, “but he was the stopper on the pitch in this match. When you can turn defence into attack with that kind of regularity, it’s a massive quality. And it wasn’t as if he was up against second-rate opposition, was it? That was a first-pick side Northampton brought down here.”
Among those “first picks” was the England blind-side flanker Tom Wood – a very different brand of No 6, admittedly, but outplayed nevertheless. There were moments when the Midlanders, under the cosh at the set piece and possibly regretting their decision to cast the Wallaby tight-head prop Salesi Ma’afu in the “travelling reserve” role, were ripped up even more comprehensively in the loose. Ewers was at the heart of the ripping process and, if he continues in this vein, Wood will not be the last big name to suffer.
There were others in eye-catching mood, not least the West Countrymen’s own tight-head specialist, Tomas Francis. Already a prominent blip on the Wales radar despite being born in York, it is not difficult to imagine him finding a way into Warren Gatland’s squad for the global gathering – something that might put him on a collision course with England come the eagerly awaited pool game between the two nations at Twickenham in September. “He’s been training with Wales, yet he’s qualified for England,” Baxter said. “I’ll let you work that one out.”
For Northampton, duffed up to within an inch of their lives by Clermont Auvergne in a hopelessly one-sided European Champions Cup quarter-final eight days previously, it was too much for flesh and blood to stand. They lit the blue touchpaper in attack often enough, but their damp-squib finishing – the result of overwrought offloading, butterfingered handling and hare-brained option taking – betrayed them time and again.
By comparison, Exeter were a model of ruthless efficiency. Phil Dollman’s opening strike on 16 minutes was pretty much perfect in both conception and execution, although he slipped away from Jamie Elliott, Christian Day and James Wilson rather too easily with the line in view. Meanwhile, the penalty try they secured shortly after the interval proved that if you grab your rivals by the unmentionables at scrum time, their hearts and minds will follow soon enough.
Then there were the game management skills of Henry Slade at outside-half and the rumbustious contributions of his fellow midfielders, Sam Hill and Jack Nowell. Northampton, lacking shape in defence as well as patience in attack, did not like the look of any of these players and, forced into some desperate scrambling as a result of the broken-field exertions of the Exeter trio, struggled to keep 15 men on the field.
Calum Clark, Stephen Myler and Alex Waller all had yellow cards flourished in their directions, and while none of the visiting players saw red, the same could not be said for the accompanying coaches. “There are times,” said Baxter’s opposite number, Jim Mallinder, “when it’s a good idea to kick the ball off the field and build pressure on the other team. We didn’t do that nearly often enough.”
Mallinder added that in spite of it all, he had seen enough good things in his side’s attacking game to convince him that “we’re still a good team”. But it has been a horrible spell for Northampton and, with Saracens and Leicester lying in wait, there are further trials ahead.
Exeter? They have difficult games of their own on the horizon, but somehow they seem far more at one with the world.
Exeter: Tries Dollman, Penalty try; Conversion Slade; Penalties Slade 3. Northampton: Tries Wilson, Elliott.
Exeter P Dollman; I Whitten, J Nowell, S Hill (T James, 75), M Jess; H Slade (G Steenson, 77), W Chudley (D Lewis, 75); B Moon (C Rimmer, 57), J Yeandle (E Taione, 67), T Francis (A Brown, 55), D Mumm (capt), M Lees (S Skinner, 75), D Ewers, B White (K Horstmann, 24-31 and 57), T Waldrom.
Northampton J Wilson (A Tuala, 61); K Pisi, G Pisi (T Stephenson, 65), L Burrell, J Elliott; S Myler, K Fotuali’i (L Dickson, 54); A Corbisiero (A Waller, 48), D Hartley (capt, M Haywood, 61), G Denman (T Mercey, 48), S Manoa (P Dowson, 71), C Day, T Wood (Corbisiero, 50-61), C Clark, S Dickinson (J Fisher, 54).
Referee W Barnes (London).