AN all-action second half display from Exeter Chiefs saw them come from behind to inflict a sixth successive defeat on Northampton Saints at Sandy Park yesterday afternoon.
Tries from Tom Hayes, Sireli Naqelevuki and Tom Johnson, aided by the reliable boot of Gareth Steenson, saw the Chiefs through after a frustrating first half, in which the Saints' Stephen Myler kicked them into a 9-3 lead.
In what was a Jekyll and Hyde display from the hosts, a poor opening period was more than made up for by an excellent demonstration of cut-and-thrust counter-attacking rugby in the second.
Whatever head coach Rob Baxter said to his men at half-time certainly had the desired effect.
It was a frustrating opening 40 minutes for both sides, despite the Saints going in with a 9-3 lead.
However, whatever was lacking in quality was certainly made up for in commitment, with two scrums boiling over inside the opening five minutes, forcing referee JP Doyle to speak to both sets of players as former Saint Chris Budgen looked to renew some old acquaintances.
The Chiefs' hulking new Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo was visibly keen to involve himself at every opportunity after being handed his first Premiership start, although his enthusiasm got the better of him as an early chance to break came to nothing as the 21-stone flyer could not gather a bouncing ball.
It was the visitors who scored first, as the Northampton pack drew a penalty at the scrum after four minutes, Myler making no mistake.
The advantage did not last for long, however, as persistent battering of the Saints' line saw a penalty awarded for going over the top and Steenson did the honours for the hosts.
Despite plenty of huffing and puffing from both sides, attacking opportunities were at a premium. It was on a rare foray close to the Exeter line that Northampton gained another penalty, this time for a rolling maul being hauled down, and Myler again hit the target.
But the Saints No. 10 did not have it all his own way, as his 17th-minute penalty from just inside the Exeter half sailed wide.
It took 20 minutes before Exeter had their first meaningful spell of possession. But there was no way through a stubborn Saints defensive line and Steenson's aimless kick to touch summed up Exeter's start.
Exeter's next bright spell came courtesy of Nadolo, as his Sonny Bill Williams-style lay-off in the tackle eventually forced a scrum deep inside Saints territory. The ball was shifted wide but, just as Nadolo was set free, the referee called it back for a forward pass.
Exeter had the chance to level the scores eight minutes before the break after Saints were caught offside, but the Sandy Park crowd was left stunned as Steenson's kick sailed wide.
And it could have been even worse for the Chiefs just a minute from half-time, as Myler intercepted a loose pass before charging towards the Chiefs line from inside his own half.
However, the recalled Phil Dollman hunted down his man and hauled him down metres from the line. But Exe were penalised soon after and Myler extended the lead to six points.
If the first half had been rather subdued, the second could not have started any differently. Exeter looked aggressive from the off and soon drew a penalty in front of the posts, which Steenson kicked. And he brought Exeter level with another close-range penalty.
But the fireworks really began 13 minutes into the half, as determined pick-and-drive play from Exeter drew ever closer to the Saints line. From the left flank it appeared certain Haydn Thomas would shift the ball right, but a fine blindside pass found captain Hayes, who ploughed over for the afternoon's first try, with Steenson adding the extras.
Just two minutes later, Exeter added a second. Northampton had barely caught their breath before a high kick in the middle of the park was brilliantly taken by Nadolo and he somehow offloaded to Naqelevuki, who galloped over the line unopposed.
Steenson again converted to make it 23-9 and Northampton appeared shell-shocked.
Replacement Shane Geraghty did his best to restore some pride for the visitors, jinking his way through a couple of tackles, but his grubber kick was heavy and the opportunity was wasted.
As Saints pressed hard to find a way back into the game, gaps began to appear in their lines and Johnson took full advantage. The flanker gathered the loose ball following a Northampton fumble and showed impressive speed to run half the length of the pitch and touch down under the posts to send the Sandy Park faithful into raptures. Steenson again added two more easy points.
Not even a late yellow card for Nic Sestaret was enough to dampen the Chiefs' spirits as a rowdy Sandy Park hailed their heroes at the end.
Exeter: Arscott, Nadolo, Dollman, Naqelevuki (Jess, 68), Sestaret, Steenson (Mieres, 71), Thomas (Poluleuligaga, 55), Clark (Alcott, 71), Budgen (Elosu, 71), Hayes, Slade (Gannon, 68), Johnson, Scaysbrook, Baxter (Phillips, 68). Reps not used: Moon
Northampton: Reihana, Ansbro, Clarke, Downey, Diggin, Myler, Commins, Tonga'uiha, Sharman, Mujati, Lawes, Sorenson, Clark, Dowson, Easter. Reps: Long, Waller, Mercey, Day, Eustace, Powell, Geraghty, Tonks
Referee: JP Doyle. Attendance: 8977