Exeter's adventure goes on but Dylan Hartley power gives Northampton Saints the happy ending

Northampton 24 Exeter 21

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If the Exeter story shows no sign of reaching its last chapter any time soon – on the evidence of this bold and adventurous performance at their least favourite venue, it will eventually run to the length of something dreamt up by Tolstoy – there is an equally fascinating narrative surrounding the continuing adventures of Dylan Hartley, one of English rugby's great originals (even though he originated on the other side of the world) and a player who could, if he stays fit and keeps his discipline, perform momentous deeds over the coming months.

The Northampton captain – lest we forget, the New Zealander also led his adopted national team the last time they took the field in anger – was at the heart of everything that unfolded at Franklin's Gardens yesterday afternoon, and as there was so much going on, this was no mean achievement.

A contest that took an early hold on the imagination and refused to let go was pretty much defined by the hooker, whose strong scrummaging, fierce mauling, cultured off-loads and sheer passion for the sound and fury marked him out as a man apart.

"He's outstanding, on and off the field," the Midlanders' rugby director Jim Mallinder said after watching Hartley cap a virtuoso performance with a sucker-punch try from an attacking line-out that just about nailed down his club's victory.

"I think he's a world-class player. In his attitude, he stands out every day of the week: he's the first to training, the hardest in training, he never turns in a sloppy session.

"When he was suspended at the back end of last season, we missed him. You don't want to be going into your biggest games without your big players." It has been obvious for a while that Hartley, always an extravagant talent in open field, has been concentrating on his close-quarter work, and this has improved out of all recognition.

He underlined the fact yesterday by putting himself at the epicentre of a series of driving mauls that ultimately proved the difference between the sides.

"Yes, I think that won us the game," the captain agreed. "Dorian West [the Northampton forwards coach] has really driven home to us how important it is to take pleasure in establishing dominance up front."

Judging by the look of satisfaction on his face, he was as pleased as punch. And with good reason, for the Devonians arrived at Franklin's Gardens handily equipped to take the place down.

Roundly thumped in these parts a season ago, they were a very difficult kettle of fish this time, to the extent that they led until the 56th minute and, despite conceding tries either side of the hour mark, were still in with a puncher's chance of victory at the last knockings.

But for some indiscipline on the floor and the odd flash of insecurity at the set-piece, they would have made Northampton sweat even more than they did.

"Looking at the wider picture," remarked Rob Baxter, the Exeter boss who has masterminded the club's rise to Heineken Cup status, "that was generally positive for us. When we lose now, it's because of fine margins rather than anything big.

"But there's a feeling of frustration too. We didn't do what we said we were going to do ahead of the game and that's a little disappointing."

Northampton just about shaded the tight opening exchanges: the contest at the scrum was too close to call, but the mauling of the home pack and Hartley's occasional burst around the edges put last season's beaten semi-finalists on the front foot.

Christian Day's opening try on 17 minutes owed much to the approach work of his two wings, Ken Pisi and Vasily Artemyev, and when the England back-rower Phil Dowson crossed in a similar spot after a show-and-go break from Ryan Lamb, there was a sense that Exeter might cop it badly for the second year running.

But the Saints started kicking away hard-won possession and played the visitors right back into the game as a result.

Phil Dollman's excellent try at the posts, courtesy of a sharp-stepping run down the right by Josh Tatupu, amounted to a statement of West Country intent, and two penalties from Ignacio Mieres – rare triumphs of marksmanship on a day when the sticks were inexplicably hard to bisect – saw Exeter a point to the good at the interval.

To make matters worse from Northampton's perspective, the South African No 8 Gerrit-Jan van Velze was twiddling his tree-trunk thumbs in the cooler, having upended the little-squirt scrum-half Will Chudley in a fashion adjudged by the officials to have been dangerous.

Mallinder did not have too much of a beef with that decision, but others very definitely got his goat.

"I went to the touchline to speak to Andrew Small [the fourth official] because I didn't understand why some calls were made and wanted clarification," he said, but added: "He didn't know either, so the clarification didn't happen."

What did happen, following another three-pointer from Mieres, was an intensification of the Northampton effort. This yielded a score for Luther Burrell, who spotted a mismatch against the prop Brett Sturgess and took full advantage, and the strong attacking position from which Hartley crossed for the bonus-point try.

The hooker's throw to the line-out was precise, and so too was the angle he picked on receiving the ball by return. Once he saw the line ahead, there was no stopping him.

Exeter would legitimately have felt hard done by had they been denied even a losing bonus, but this came their way at the death when Matt Jess finished off a strong run from the Fijian centre Sireli Naqelevuki.

It ensured everyone went home reasonably happy, which doesn't happen every day in the bitterly contested world of the Premiership.

Scorers: Northampton: Tries Day, Dowson, Burrell, Hartley Conversions Lamb, Myler; Exeter: Tries Dollman, Jess Conversions Mieres Penalties Mieres 3

Northampton: B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi (L Burrell 35), D Waldouck, V Artemyev; R Lamb (S Myler 51), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 66), D Hartley (capt, M Haywood 75), B Mujati (T Mercey 62), S Manoa, C Day (M Sorenson 30-HT and 66), P Dowson, T Wood, G J Van der Velze (R Oakley 60).

Exeter: L Arscott; J Tatupu (S Naqelevuki 48), I Whitten, P Dollman, M Jess; I Mieres, W Chudley (K Barrett 60); B Sturgess (B Moon 62), C Whitehead (S Alcott 64), C Mitchell (C Budgen 76), T Hayes (capt), A Muldowney (J Hanks 30), T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, R Baxter (J Phillips 58).

Referee: J P Doyle (London)..