Saints overcome the sins of Hartley to rise again

Exeter Chiefs 19 Northampton Saints 30

Pragmatism is evidently the watchword for Northampton in 2013. After the giddy heights of leading the Premiership with five successive wins (including one over Exeter Chiefs at home) they had declined into mid-table mediocrity until yesterday, when they imposed on Exeter a first home league loss this season and climbed into a play-off position.

That they did so owed much to Gloucester's unexpected defeat but Northampton will take what gifts the gods give them.

Just like their East Midland confrères from Leicester, who scored two penalty tries against Worcester on Friday, they screwed home their advantage with two tries from driven close-range lineouts and confirmed the physical edge that they had demonstrated throughout.

"It's put us back into the frame and leaves us in a decent league position," Jim Mallinder, Saints' director of rugby, said. "We have had some decent away games this season, here and against Gloucester and Bath, as well as Ulster in the Heineken Cup. Now we need to focus on our home form."

Suddenly Exeter seem as porous as the name of their ground. A draw at home to Bath the previous week and now the loss of their Premiership ground record, with Leinster, the European champions, the next side to visit. Exeter are not executing their game with the precision we have been led to expect, notably at the breakdown where Northampton's methods found far greater favour with the referee.

They will rediscover it, of course, with flanker Tom Johnson probably setting the example. Of all the players involved with a chance of being named in England's senior squad next Wednesday, Johnson did the most to impress and state his case for selection by Stuart Lancaster though Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley are on the way back to their best and Tom Wood has never lost his touch. Hartley, though, must cut out his pantomime villain characteristics.

Far too often he is found on the wrong sides of rucks and, once again, was sent to the sin bin around half-time; in his absence, Exeter kicked three penalties to one by Stephen Myler and, on another day, that might have been more costly.

But Exeter's greatest fault was an inability to do the simple thing at the right time: the failure, for instance, to find touch which allowed Myler to send Foden away on the run which beat two defenders and gave Ken Pisi a straightforward finish for the first try.

Twice Exeter then opened up Northampton's zealous defence only to be penalised 10 metres from the line and the loss of Haydn Thomas just after the interval did not help.

The scrum-half took a boot in the face from one of his own players and retired disconsolate.

In Hartley's absence, Exeter reduced the gap to four points but did not realise, according to Rob Baxter, their head coach, how much pressure they were imposing on the visitors.

"Mental sharpness and better control in certain parts of the field," said Baxter, though he may have been slightly more forthright with his players.

For all the attacking gifts of Luke Arscott, Exeter could not hold steady against Northampton's driving maul.

Soane Tonga'uiha was the first to benefit after G J van Velze's lineout catch; van Velze himself was the second, with just five minutes remaining, after Samu Manoa had won the lineout.

In between Exeter did work Sereli Naqelevuki over the line, the only time Northampton's defence showed anything less than enthusiasm for the tackle.

But the Chiefs have dropped off the pace over the holiday period and their immediate punishment is the visit next weekend to the most formidable team in Europe, Clermont Auvergne.

Exeter L Arscott; G Camacho, I Whitten, P Dollman (S Naqelevuki, 48), M Jess; G Steenson (I Mieres, 61), H Thomas (K Barrett, 41); B Moon (C Rimmer, 59), N Clark (J Yeandle, 76), H Tui (C Mitchell, 59), D Mumm, J Hanks (T Hayes, 52), T Johnson, R Baxter (capt), B White (A Muldowney, 58).

Northampton B Foden; K Pisi (L Burrell, 59), G Pisi, D Waldouck, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 59), D Hartley (capt), P Doran-Jones (T Mercey, 64), C Lawes (S Manoa, 55), M Sorenson, C Clark (M Haywood, 41, T Wood, 55), G J van Velze, P Dowson.

Referee G Garner (Warwickshire).

Exeter Chiefs

Try: Naqelevuki

Con: Mieres

Pens: Steenson 4

Northampton Saints

Tries: KS Pisi, Tonga'uiha, Van Velze

Cons: Myler 3

Pens: Myler 3