Exeter know where they are going and are getting there fast – far faster, it must be said, than anyone thought possible at the start of the Premiership campaign. Northampton? They are going nowhere, even more quickly. It will beggar belief if the likes of Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood, Ben Foden and Chris "Splashdown" Ashton fail to make a positive impact on the Midlanders when they return from Six Nations duty later this month, but with confidence levels among the current personnel somewhere down near the earth's core, the England contingent will have to be seriously brilliant to put things right immediately.
And anyway, Jim Mallinder is deeply uncomfortable with the assumption that Hartley and company will simply wave a magic wand and sprinkle some much-needed stardust around the place. "That would be a dangerous way to think," said the director of rugby. "The important thing is to recognise that we have some good players in the side now and to concentrate on finding a way of getting them playing better. Our front row is not firing the way it was at the start of the season, our centres aren't giving us the same go-forward, the back-row unit isn't functioning as well. We have to address it."
There was a stark illustration of Northampton's parlous state when Mallinder summoned Shane Geraghty from the bench midway through a third quarter so completely dominated by the Devonians that a tight game was transformed into a one-way parade during the course of it. Geraghty was unusually hirsute in the chin region, and there has been some suggestion he will not shave again until the England selectors remember who he is or Northampton next win a game, whichever comes first. His doctor should advise him not to wait on either count, for fear he might trip over his beard.
Operating at full-back in a back division reshuffled as a result of Joe Ansbro's early departure, he set sail on a startling 70-metre run that took him from his own 22 deep into Exeter's at an impressive rate of knots. Fourteen points adrift at 9-23 after conceding tries to Tom Hayes and Sireli Naqelevuki, the visitors at last had a platform from which to launch a rescue effort. What happened? Their attacks failed to stretch the Exeter defence, and when the home wing Nic Sestaret clattered Bruce Reihana with a balls-and-all tackle, Tom Johnson ran the best part of 60 metres in the other direction to claim the wrap-up score.
Johnson has been setting tongues a-wagging for a while now; indeed, he has no obvious challenger as the form blind-side flanker in the tournament. Tall, strong in contact, good on his feet and distinctly rapid, he was as impressive yesterday as at any point in the season, and, as his coach, Rob Baxter, pointed out, there is a good deal more to come.
"Tom is maturing nicely," said Baxter, who, after a couple of pints of "apples" in the Sandy Park bar, headed off to the family farm on the edge of town for a few hours of peaceful, satisfied contemplation. "I think I've been more pleased with him over the last five or six weeks because he's worked on bringing things to his game that were missing a few months ago. He's always carried the ball well; he's always been good with his one-on-one defence. The questions we had of him were in other areas: for instance, how many rucks was he helping to clear? That was his challenge, and that's where he's made his recent improvement."
Exeter were six points adrift at the interval, Gareth Steenson landing one penalty to Stephen Myler's three. But Steenson took advantage of a more energetic, dynamic approach from his pack to level it within 10 minutes of the resumption, and when Chris Budgen messed up Soane Tonga'uiha at a set piece, the outside-half booted his team into a prime attacking position 15 metres out. Johnson featured twice in manufacturing a fine try for Tom Hayes in the left corner – a score improved by Steenson from tight to the touchline.
Northampton, who had barely touched the ball since the end of the first half, would have preferred to regain possession in a less painful fashion, but at least they had a restart opportunity. A fat lot of good it did them. Haydn Thomas, who caught the eye more than once in capitalising on the work of his forwards, hoisted a box-kick, the humongous Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo plucked it from the air as if he were picking plums, and his fellow Pacific islander Naqelevuki did the rest. Again Steenson nailed the conversion from an unsympathetic angle. Again, the Midlanders were left wondering what had hit them.
"Every time we win, people ask me whether it's the best win," Baxter said.
"The way we look at it, they're all great. What pleases me about this one is the manner of it. Normally, we get out of the blocks well, but today, we had to absorb a fair bit in the first half. If I'm honest, I feel we should have had more reward for our scrummaging performance. I don't know why, but the first three or four set pieces ended in a bit of a dust-up."
Actually, Baxter knew perfectly well. His props, Brett Sturgess and the wonderfully spherical Budgen, were once on the books at Northampton, and had been bristling all week at the prospect of mixing it with their big-name successors, Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati. By the time their coach rang the front-row changes in the final quarter, there was no doubting the identities of the victors – just as there was no disputing the decisive scale of Exeter's eighth win of this, their first season in the top flight. Next stop Europe, and it might arrive sooner than most people – even those living in deepest Devon – ever imagined.
Exeter: Tries Hayes, Naqelevuki, Johnson; Conversions Steenson (3); Penalties Steenson (3). Northampton: Penalties Myler (3).
Exeter L Arscott; N Sestaret, P Dollman, S Naqelevuki (M Jess, 70), N Nadolo; G Steenson (I Mieres, 73), H Thomas (J Poluleuligaga, 60); B Sturgess (B Moon, 62), N Clark (S Alcott, 70), C Budgen (I Elosu, 73), T Hayes (capt), C Slade (D Gannon, 70), T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, R Baxter (J Phillips, 70).
Northampton: B Reihana; J Ansbro (S Geraghty, 53), J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler (G Tonks, 72), S Commins; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 73), B Sharman (A Long 73), B Mujati (T Mercey, 69), C Lawes, M Sorenson (C Day, 69), C Clark, P Dowson (capt), M Easter.
Referee J P Doyle (London West).