No one was more chuffed with this serenely simple win for Northampton than Dylan Hartley, the club's captain and hooker, who played his first match since being sent off in last May's Premiership final and scored the first of the Saints' four first-half tries.
"It was difficult for me, there were all these little sub-plots going on in my head," said Hartley. "How I'm going to deal with the ref, how are the crowd going to react to me, not playing any minutes in pre-season. I seemed to deal with it okay. This was the perfect way to start the season and start afresh."
Northampton pounded Exeter with power rugby, and the two headliners in a strong set of summer signings – George North and Alex Corbisiero – fitted in nicely.
As for Hartley, he took care to shake the hand of the referee JP Doyle when he was substituted in the second half, as warm cheers of tender affection teemed down from the stands. "The people round here are really good and friendly; the only stick I've had is from people hiding behind keyboards," said Hartley, who has never admitted to the offence of verbal abuse of Wayne Barnes in the final, but spent "a long summer" banned from playing instead of touring with the Lions or England nevertheless. "I was very aware of how to manage a ref," Hartley said.
There was frustration in other aspects of the game. The Television Match Official system is in operation at every Premiership match now, but the trouble at a non-televised match such as this one is that the crowd are not privy to any replays. All they saw was the referee making the TMO signal and sticking a finger in his ear, awaiting a verdict.
So it could only be an educated guess what Doyle was checking before he awarded Northampton's George Pisi a 36th-minute bonus-point try, which had begun with a quick line-out in Saints' half and featured charges by Phil Dowson and North in midfield and soft hands by Sam Dickinson and Courtney Lawes at the end.
It was probably those two passes that Doyle wanted looked at, but who knows? There should be a way of giving spectators the accurate information. In any event, the try was converted by Steve Myler, just as the fly-half had done with the three that went before it. Myler also kicked a penalty after 15 minutes and Exeter's two penalties by Gareth Steenson – one after a yellow card to Dowson – were scant comfort as Saints' big runners carved them up and caused confusion.
North and Corbisiero did play in pre-season after joining from Scarlets and London Irish respectively, and even yesterday it was a mere nine weeks since they had helped the Lions to their victory over Australia in the third Test in Sydney.
By contrast Hartley looked a couple of strides short of a gallop for his third-minute, 15-metre run-in from Luther Burrell's long pass but he still held off Phil Dollman and Brett Sturgess.
Next came the first look at the "crouch, bind, set" on-trial scrum engagement. Doyle and the packs spent two minutes and two resets to arrive at a penalty against Saints' Tom Mercey for not binding.
Exeter's coach Rob Baxter denounced the whole process afterwards, complaining that referees had just been getting used to the previous engagement when it was changed. Otherwise, Baxter put this first opening-day loss since his club joined the Premiership down as a kind of extra pre-season run-out.
Following a try by Ken Pisi made by Burrell's show and go, and another for Tom Wood when Ben Foden's kick-chase got Exeter in another muddle, there was a scrum where Northampton's all England-qualified front row marched their opponents backwards and upwards. Cue a penalty and, you would imagine, a box ticked for the England coaches Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree.
Courtney Lawes was sent to the sin bin for tackling without using his arms seven minutes into the second half, but with Steenson missing touch, and Haydn Thomas thwarted twice – first with an optimistic chip, then with a dart for the line held up – Exeter were stymied until their captain, Dean Mumm, corkscrewed to a try in the 60th minute.
North was easily read and robbed on an infield break from a wheeling scrum, and it fell instead to Christian Day's catch-and-drive to make a try for Samu Manoa with 72 minutes gone, with Myler converting.
"Our attack was good in the first half and defence was good in the second," said Jim Mallinder, the Northampton coach, who praised Hartley but was no less satisfied with Burrell and Dickinson, the latter of whom has bided even more time than Hartley, having been injured or loan to Moseley since moving from Rotherham a year ago.
Northampton B Foden; K Pisi (J Elliott, 70), G Pisi (J Wilson, 60), L Burrell, G North; S Myler, L Dickson (K Fotuali'i, 56); A Corbisiero (A Waller, 60), D Hartley (capt; M Haywood, 58), T Mercey (G Denman, 60), C Lawes (S Manoa, 56), C Day, T Wood (C Clark, 58), P Dowson, S Dickinson.
Exeter P Dollman; M Jess, I Whitten, J Shoemark (S Hill, 56), T James; G Steenson (H Slade, 51), H Thomas (D Lewis, 56); B Sturgess (B Moon, 54), J Yeandle (C Whitehead, 54), H Tui (C Rimmer, 54), D Mumm (capt), D Welch (Hayes, 66), T Johnson, J Scaysbrook (B White, 51), D Ewers.
Referee JP Doyle.
Tries: Hartley, K Pisi, Wood, G Pisi, Manoa
Cons: Myler 5
Pens: Steenson 2Reuse content