The Premiership's directors of rugby know their players must occasionally take a rest. Sometimes it is their choice, sometimes not. Under the terms of the England squad agreement, the Northampton full-back Ben Foden will miss one of the imminent Heineken Cup fixtures against Castres and Edinburgh. Fortunately, Northampton should have their wing Chris Ashton fit to face the French side on Friday after two matches out with a foot injury. With a little back-three reshuffling, Saints should cope.
Foden has played through Northampton's four wins and a defeat in the opening five weeks of the Premiership, and he and his fly-half Shane Geraghty survived some old-fashioned roughing-up by Exeter, who brought with them two former Saints props, Brett Sturgess and Chris Budgen. The latter was greeted warmly by the home support but his try and one more by Luke Arscott in the final 11 minutes prompted serious thoughts of an Exeter victory. Northampton, remember, have lost just three times at Franklin's Gardens since March 2007.
But Saints held on, thankful for a lead of 27-9 after Soane Tonga'uiha was driven over from a line-out in the 62nd minute. Exeter had long tried the same ploy at the other end without success. These marginal differences in potency and not much else separated the recently promoted side from their hosts, who were distracted by changes to their pack – voluntary ones, that is.
Exeter may now give some front-liners a break in the Amlin Challenge Cup against Montpellier and Bourgoin, although the Chiefs' coach Rob Baxter said: "We won't be fielding a second team in Europe. We don't want to break the momentum we have got."
It's a family affair for the Baxters: Rob's parents and son were watching here and the coach's brother Richie, the 32-year-old regular No 8, is set to make his season's debut in the next fortnight after recovering from a shoulder injury.
Baxter was pleased by his side's fightback. "Northampton had the game pretty much sewn up, eased off a little bit for whatever reason, made a few changes, took off some key personnel," he said. "That was the time of the game we had to push hard to try and get something out of the game and we did. We forced some penalties, forced a yellow card [for Northampton centre Jon Clarke] and scored our tries.
"Some teams have completely crumbled in the face of Northampton's scrum this season but we certainly didn't."
Northampton said a groin injury had forced Geraghty to cede the goal-kicking duties to Bruce Reihana, who had 629 points from the tee for the Saints before he added another 17 here. "We got down in Exeter's half and gave a lot of ball away," said Reihana, frustrated despite the pleasure of passing 1,000 points for the club overall, including his 73 career tries .
Oddly, perhaps, it has rarely been policy for Reihana to step in during matches when Geraghty has been off-target. "Bruce has put his hand up to start as kicker next Friday," said Northampton's director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, who also complained that "poor attack" was getting its reward under the refereeing directives. Oh dear, that positive feeling towards the men in the middle did not last long.
Scorers: Northampton: Tries Diggin, Tonga'uiha; Conversions Reihana; Penalties Reihana 5; Exeter: Tries Budgen, Arscott; Conversions Steenson; Penalties Steenson 3.
Northampton: B Foden; P Diggin, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, B Sharman, E Murray, C Lawes, C Day, P Dowson (capt), C Clark, R Wilson. Replacements: Ansbro for Downey (51, 62), Myler for Geraghty (56), Powell for Dickson (70), Dreyer for Tonga'uiha (64), Sorenson for Lawes (56), Easter for Wilson (62).
Exeter: L Arscott; S Naqelevuki, P Dollman, B Rennie, M Foster; G Steenson, H Thomas; B Sturgess, N Clark, H Tui, T Hayes (capt), J Hanks, C Slade, J Scaysbrook, T Johnson. Replacements: Davis for Dollman (70), Jess for rennie (63), Poluleligaga for Thomas (22), Alcott for Clark (51), Bugden for Tui (51), Gannon for Hanks (70).
Referee: JP Doyle (London).