It should have been such a romantic moment: Richie Baxter, one of the farming brothers who have pretty much defined Exeter rugby over the course of the Devon club's remarkable two-year rise as a Premiership force, completed his 350th league game for the club by picking up the ball at the base of a wheeling scrum in time-honoured No 8 style and touching down to the right of the sticks with precisely no seconds remaining on the clock. Sadly, it was a profoundly muted moment. The game had already gone, taking the West Countrymen's semi-finals hopes with it.
In so far as he cares about personal landmarks and statistical anniversaries - and he doesn't much, or even at all - Baxter deserved better. Exeter have had more than their fair share of "biggest games in our history" since earning themselves a shot at promotion in the spring of 2010 and as the 33-year-old loose forward has played in the overwhelming majority of them, it was a cruel twist of fate that rendered his try irrelevant. A benign rugby god would have ensured that such a score, at such a late stage of the game, on such an occasion, was the cause of ale-drenched celebration.
As it was, a few dozen disappointed members of the capacity crowd were already heading for the exit gates in the knowledge that Exeter had blown their semi-final chances. Mathematically, they will still have a last-four place available to them when they visit Saracens for their final league fixture in 12 days' time. And realistically? Not a cat's hope. Northampton need only to beat Worcester at home to secure their own place and end the Devonians' campaign at a stroke.
"You can be as pleased as you like to be playing in games like this, but when you get so close to something you're bound to be gutted when you fall short," said the Exeter head coach, Rob Baxter, elder brother of Richard and the principal architect of all that has been built at Sandy Park from the playing perspective. "I'm not going to stand here and quibble with the outcome: in the second half, we lost the control we had established in the first and we paid for it. How do you learn not to make such mistakes? By fighting and fighting to give yourselves opportunities of participating in these kinds of matches, you give yourselves more and more experience. And that's what we'll do."
The Saints, deprived of two suspended forwards in the England hooker Dylan Hartley and the red-rose squad flanker Calum Clark, headed into the wild wet winds of the far south-west without the outstanding back-rower Tom Wood for good measure. (Wood, struggling with a chronic toe injury, will not play again before next season, let alone recover in time for England's three-Test tour of South Africa in June). Yet after a rough first half, in which they could have shipped twice as many points as they did, they had sufficient quality in important positions to find a way of winning.
Phil Dowson, who made his debut for England in the Six Nations as a No 8, was pressed into service here as an open-side flanker and did enough in the second half to shackle the energetic James Scaysbrook, the former Bath breakaway who sets the tempo and the rhythm of the Exeter forward effort. Alongside him, the locks Mark Sorenson and Christian Day established complete supremacy at the line-out, thereby depriving the Devonians of the oxygen of possession. Coach Baxter has spoken proudly of Exeter's expertise in keeping hold of the ball, but it is fiendishly difficult to retain something you don't have in the first place.
There was also a fine performance, which would have been flawless but for a late knock-on, from the Samoan centre George Pisi, who has looked like the signing of the season for much of it and underlined his claim to that accolade yesterday. As good without the ball as he is with it, he did more than anyone to prevent Exeter disappearing over the horizon, and into the semi-finals, when the going was good for them early on.
Behind to an early Stephen Myler penalty awarded at the fag-end of a long, multi-phased Northampton attack that had taken an age to go virtually nowhere, Exeter responded with 10 points in the space of eight minutes midway through the first quarter. Haydn Thomas, their excellent scrum-half, twice took a leaf from the book of his opposite number Lee Dickson by indulging his penchant for the tap-and-go routine and from the second of these interventions, the Argentine wing Gonzalo Camacho bounced over for the opening try. Ignacio Mieres, his countryman, converted and then knocked over a goal after Matt Jess had threatened a second touchdown in the left corner.
Another score for the home side then would have left Northampton in a fine mess and had Pisi not brought the threatening Mieres to earth with a perfectly timed tap tackle on 26 minutes or Hoani Tui, the spherical tight-head prop, been just a little more aerodynamic - try as he might, he could not move quite quickly enough to capitalise on a free run to the line after mysteriously finding himself in possession from a restart - that score would surely have materialised. To their frustration, the Devonians' scoreboard progress stalled at the seven-point mark.
That advantage was largely wiped out from the restart when Dickson, at his vibrant best, ran wide off a scrum to manufacture a straightforward corner-flag try for Chris Ashton. Myler nailed a penalty, awarded against the far from inconspicuous figure of Tui at a 62nd-minute ruck, to regain the lead; and when, six minutes from time, Paul Diggin scored down the left from a strike against the head by the Northampton front row - their second in as many scrums - the deed was done. Baxter's late riposte? Five points that were essentially pointless.
Scorers: Exeter - Tries Camacho, Baxter; Conversion Mieres; Penalty Mieres. Northampton - Tries Ashton, Diggin; Conversion Myler; Penalties Myler 2.
Exeter P Dollman; G Camacho, B Rennie (S Naqelevuki 63), J Shoemark, M Jess; I Mieres, H Thomas (K Barrett 66); B Moon (B Sturgess 61), C Whitehead (N Clark 67), H Tui (C Mitchell 67), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (A Muldowney 66), T Johnson (B White 66), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter.
Northampton B Foden; C Ashton, G Pisi, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler, L Dickson (capt); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 66), A Long (R McMillan 69), B Mujati (P Doran-Jones 59), M Sorenson, C Day, J Craig (B Nutley 69), P Dowson, R Wilson.
Referee A Small (London)Reuse content