Exeter shine as Saints feel the effects of stars' national duties

Exeter 30 Northampton 9

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).

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Life and Style
A general view during the 2014 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at Earl's Court exhibition centre on 2 December, 2014 in London, England
fashionIt's not all about the catwalks: the big changes of the past year can be summed up in six clothing items
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?