Northampton narrowly overcome Exeter despite continuing issues at 10
After a breathless opening round of the Aviva Premiership rugby fans throughout the country, and indeed around the world, tuned in this weekend expecting the fireworks to continue. Exeter posted a big score on Sale last week showing they have all the tools to put teams to the sword. On Sunday they travelled to Franklin’s Gardens eager to build upon their impressive first showing. The Northampton side would not be easy pickings however. The Saints beat Gloucester 24-19 in an inconspicuous but comfortable manner, with lots of fast-paced physical rugby from their dynamic pack. Behind this pack resides a host of outside backs who can trouble any defence in the league, the established Ben Foden is joined by the powerful Pisi brothers and Russian international Vasily Artemyev.
So, all the Saints need is a fly-half who will make his tackles, kick his kicks and distribute well: A Charlie Hodgeson figure, well balanced and unostentatious. This is not what they have. Many are starting to believe that neither Ryan Lamb nor Stephen Myler have the consistency to take this promising side to the top. The backroom lads also seem undecided on the best route, playing neither 10 consistently. Inconsistent players playing on an inconsistent basis is probably not going to aid the team chemistry.
But enough! This is a new day, a new match and a time for players to show critics that they are just mindless pawns, ignorantly scribbling to feed their pulsating egos. In the September sun, Franklin’s looks like God’s croquet lawn and conditions are perfect, the perfect scene for another premiership gem.
The action started straight away with Northampton on the front foot, Hartley and Dowson exhibiting that extra power and ruthlessness indicative of international experience. Within the first eleven minutes both fly-halfs missed fairly simple penalties, aggressively hooking wide. Fifteen minutes in Saints put pressure on a Chiefs’ defensive scrum, five metres out. Tighthead Mujati was able to find a weakness in the Exeter front row and force inaccurate hook. Dixon pounced on the opportunity and the ball was spun wide, but good Exeter defence and slow handling denied Saints an opportunity in the corner and touch was found. However, Saints would be given a second bite almost immediately.
Exeter claimed the lineout comfortably but scrum-half, Will Chudley, who struggled with his box kicks all game, deferred responsibility to fly-half Mieres. Mieres panicked and pumped the egg straight down Ben Foden’s throat, who promptly countered, as is his wont. The fullback glided through the chasing Chiefs before passing wide to Artemyev, who was felled a metre shy, but played immediately off the deck to Day who claimed the first score of the day. Mieres argued he was blocked by Dowson, enabling Foden to make the initial break but no action was taken. Foden will realise that he will have to fight for his England shirt with the ever improving Mike Brown and his blistering counters are his strongest asset. There are Lions places to consider too. Ominously, Lamb missed the straightforward conversion.
If Lamb was starting to wobble, he only had to look to his counterpart for solace. The Chiefs were getting dominated at scrum time, but dug deep and forced a penalty straight in front of the posts. Mieres was only too happy to step up and shank left. It was starting to become apparent why the Argentinean was not required for national service. To accompany his wayward kicking, he was guilty of some poor kicking from hand and in the second half threw some awfully inaccurate passes.
Northampton’s next score was initiated by more brutality from the captain Hartley, providing ideal go-forward ball. Dixon moved the ball quickly to Lamb who looked up to find his chance of redemption. Chiefs’ loosehead Brett Sturgess found himself in every prop’s nightmare: In the midfield with backs running at pace. Lamb made the most of the mismatch, diving deep into Exeter territory. After a few quick phases Lamb fired a flat ball to Hartley who, instead of putting his head down and engaging “operation leg pump” like many a hooker would, calmly pivoted and offloaded to Ben Foden screaming on an outside line. This forced the last defender to commit and release Artemyev, who again was pulled down just short. A quick pick from the base by Dowson allowed him an easy score. Lamb even made the conversion, in a decidedly harder position than those he missed. 12-0 after 25 minutes, Saints were starting to take control.
However, as we saw last season, Exeter is not a side to lie down, and with all the momentum against them the Chiefs bit back. Winger Josh Tatupu received the ball deep and attacked Artemyev’s outside channel before a perfectly timed juke inside the Russian. Tatupu scrambled 30 metres and offloaded to Dollman, who shook off a desperate tackle to run under the posts. Mieres opted for the drop goal and finally got his name on the board.
Lamb managed to extract a few more moans of anguish from the home fans before half time and was probably starting to sense the chop coming. Attacking 15 metres out he turned down options outside him and pulled the trigger, but the drop goal attempt was sliced wide. Two minutes later he was penalised for a lazy tackle attempt which caught the man around the neck. Mieres kicked the three.
Just before the whistle the impressive Chiefs fullback Luke Arscott punched through the Saints’ defence and through a series of deft offloads released Exeter’s danger man Matt Jess. The last line of defence denied him his third try of the season but was penalised for side entry. Before the play continued referee JP Doyle called the TMO into action, suspicious of an illegal tackle on Will Chudley. No. 8 van Velze was found guilty of a dangerous spear tackle and shown yellow. This sparked a half time debate as, strictly speaking, the rules say this infringement deserves a red card. Dean Ryan called for more objectivity in referees’ decisions. Stuart Barnes argued, in one of his more lucid moments, that bad rules will force decisions. There was little malice in the tackle, the over rotation probably coming from the high momentum of the relatively light scrum-half. As Wales found out in the world cup, where Alain Rolland did get the red out for the same offence, sending offs ruin matches. Doyle exercised reason and probably got it more right than wrong.
So at half time despite superior territory and possession, Saints trailed 12-13. Soon after the break Myler relieved Lamb and as his first act put a restart straight out, a sub-optimal start for a man competing for the 10 shirt. New boy Luther Burrell gave a powerful performance when he replaced George Pisi, picking out poor old Brett Sturgess again to score his maiden Saints try.
The second half was an exhibition of controlled, powerful mauling from the Northampton forwards. Exeter struggled with it throughout the 40 minutes. After Chiefs pulled down a drive, Northampton kicked to the corner and set up to push over the line. However, as the Exeter forwards flocked to withstand the rolling maul, the ball was popped to Hartley coming around the corner at pace. None could stop the captain reaching the line as he ploughed through the void created by the dummy maul. Another 2 drives saw the Saints make almost 60 metres then win a penalty. Myler missed the shot at goal.
Exeter made a late surge, with replacement centre Sireli Naqelevuki showing power and pace. Saints replacement Oakley missed the last three minutes due to a cynical trip, the second saint to be branded a sinner. In the dying moments Naqelevuki threw a deceiving dummy and allowed Matt Jess to finally run onto the ball, beating the last man to the line and securing a losing bonus point for the Chiefs.
Hartley deservedly picked up man of the match. He carried well, led well and showed none of the petulance that plagued his earlier career. Both Woods and Johnson played well but it was disappointing not to see one really lay down a claim for an England shirt. I think it’s safe to say neither side will be revelling in their performance, and both will be looking hard at the options available at the fly-half spot.