Mike Haywood’s first try of the season got Saints off to a winning start in 2016 as they earned an 8-3 win against Exeter Chiefs at Franklin’s Gardens.
It was hardly a New Year’s Day classic, but Haywood’s first-half effort, which came from an unstoppable lineout drive, earned four precious points for Jim Mallinder’s men.
JJ Hanrahan added a penalty before the break, with Exeter taking 74 minutes to register their first points, through a Gareth Steenson effort.
Saints saw it out with some stubborn defending, ensuring they have not coneceded a try in any of their past three games at the Gardens.
It was a fourth Aviva Premiership win of the season for the men in green, black and gold, while Exeter suffered their first defeat since the opening day.
The tight nature of the contest was illustrated by two early Exeter scrums, both of which saw no ground given by either side.
But from the second, Paul Hill’s strength earned Saints a penalty and the young prop was quickly mobbed by his delighted team-mates.
The home side used the penalty to clear their lines and they thought they’d scored when George North gathered, but Tom Collins had knocked on in the build-up.
Saints were starting to step it up in what was becoming an intriguing scrum battle, and twice they went for the corner after winning penalties.
From the second lineout, the forwards did the business, driving Exeter back and giving dynamic hooker Haywood his first score of the season.
Hanrahan missed the conversion, but Saints, who had not scored in their previous two games at the Gardens, were firmly on top, putting the squeeze on their in-form opponents.
The home side were hit by a double injury blow on 25 minutes as Kahn Fotuali’i and Victor Matfield were both forced off, with Lee Dickson and Christian Day on in their place.
But young wing Collins was still on and he was having a great first half.
The wing’s clever kick helped pin Exeter back and after the men in white infringed, Hanrahan landed a penalty to earn an eight-point lead going into the break.
The Irishman had the chance to add to the advantage a minute into the second half, but his long-range penalty attempt drifted wide of the posts.
Exeter were gradually improving, but Saints were standing tall, with some big tackling shutting the door in the faces of the Chiefs.
George Pisi epitomised that defensive desire as he welcomed former Saint Will Hooley back to the Gardens with a huge hit that won the ball back for the home side.
But Saints were struggling to make the most of their possession, wasting a lineout deep in Exeter territory.
And the Chiefs set up a nervy finale as Steenson landed his side’s first points of the match via a penalty six minutes from time.
Nervousness was suddenly in the air at the Gardens, but Exeter had struggled to produce any inspiration during the previous 74 minutes and that theme was to continue.
Saints saw the game out and it ended with Exeter throwing the ball out of play in a moment that summed up a game short on quality but rich in enthusiasm.
Saints: Foden (c); Collins, G Pisi, Burrell, North; Hanrahan, Fotuali’i (Dickson 25); A Waller (E Waller 65), Haywood (Hartley 52), Hill; Lawes, Matfield (Day 25); Gibson, Harrison (Paterson 52), Dickinson.
Replacements not used: Denman, Myler, Mallinder.
Exeter Chiefs: Dollman (Hooley 60); Nowell, Campagnaro (Short 55), Whitten, Woodburn; Steenson, Chudley; Moon (Rimmer 55), Yeandle (c) (Taione 55), Francis (Low 55); Lees (Atkins 25), Parling; Armand, Johnson (White 61), Waldrom.
Replacements not used: Lewis.
Referee: JP Doyle