Exeter Chiefs 20 Saints 12 - Tom Vickers' view and player ratings
The Saints players who took to the field at Sandy Park will probably have had heard the sound of referee Greg Garner's whistle in their sleep last night.
That shrill sound will have haunted them on their way back from the west country as, time and time again, they fell foul of the man in the middle.
That is not to say all of the decisions were all wrong.
Just that Saints really struggled for discipline during a second half that undid one of their best 40-minute showings of the season.
Jim Mallinder’s men had been in total control at the break, scoring through Lee Dickson and Ken Pisi.
They were razor-sharp in attack and resolute in defence, keeping the Chiefs at arm’s length.
The hosts, who had only lost one league game at home all season, were constantly stopped in their tracks by a wall of grey.
Saints’ smothering pressure forced errors, turnovers and laid the foundations for attacking bursts.
Having won five of their past six games playing some fine attacking rugby, they continued in the same vein.
The swagger was still there and both tries involved fine work from several members of the side.
But that swagger evaporated after Garner’s whistle blew for the break.
From then on, it was one-way traffic.
Exeter were the ones doing the suffocating and they just would not allow Saints to get out of their own half.
In fact, had a few fans set up deckchairs in the home 22, they would have had a serene second half, untroubled until the final couple of minutes.
Because Exeter, who scored 17 unanswered points after the interval, refused to relent.
And Mike Haywood’s 49th-minute sin-binning was an open door that they waltzed through via Olly Woodburn’s try.
Saints, who had looked so secure, were suddenly on the rack, and there was no way back.
Garner continually awarded the Chiefs penalties, with the home side winning 10 to Saints’ zero after the interval.
No side can expect to win with that kind of count stacked against them, and so it proved.
Saints had been serial offenders against Sale a week earlier, but turned it around in the second half, with a squeaky-clean final 40 minutes earning the win.
This time, the tables had turned.
And how much it hurt them after all they had done before heading in for half-time.
A win would have kept them in the top four, but, as it was, Leicester, who beat Saracens, moved back above Mallinder’s men.
Saiints will probably have to get points on the road if they are to make the play-offs for a seventh successive season, and this game should have brought some.
But they just couldn’t get any control after the interval with their kicking out of hand, which had been immaculate during the first period, failing to relieve the pressure.
The wind was a factor, but it shouldn’t have been worth 17 points to Exeter.
Garner’s decision to disallow George Pisi’s late score deprived Saints of a losing bonus point and it has to be said that it was a harsh call.
The official did side with the home team after the break, but Saints will know they should never have allowed him to.
They have responded well to setbacks this season, and they will have to do so again against Harlequins on Sunday.
But if they are to do that, they will have to ensure that the overriding sound of the game is not a whistle highlighting their errors.
How they rated...
Had a really good first half, injecting plenty of pace into Saints’ attacking play, but his team were always on the back foot after the break... 6
Etched his name on the scoresheet and did a few good things, but also a couple of bad as well... 6
Denied a late try by a harsh call, the Samoan centre missed a few tackles but did well in attack during the first period... 6
Kicked well from hand in the first half, gaining Saints welcome territory, but wasn’t able to get into the game after the break and was sacrificed during Haywood’s sin-binning... 6
A real shame for the Samoan, who was making his first start since November. Was forced off at the break after a really good first-half display... 7
Missed a couple of tough kicks from the tee and was taken on a couple of times defensively, but did create well during the first half... 6
The skipper remains red hot and he scored his sixth try in as many games with a fine piece of awareness... 7
Couldn’t get much dominance in the scrum as Exeter largely matched Saints, but worked hard... 6
Was impressive during the first half, but his sin-binning cost Saints dear as Exeter turned the tide... 5
Put in a big first-half display, but Exeter managed to get to grips with the prop after the break... 7
A nice little offload helped to tee up Lee Dickson’s score and the lock put in another steady display... 6
Made some key interventions to help Saints win turnovers during the first period, but couldn’t have the same impact after the break... 6
Once again, the flanker put in a tireless display, putting himself around and he was unfortunate to give away a penalty in the build-up to a late disallowed try... 7
The flanker helped Saints steal plenty of Exeter ball during the first period, but the Chiefs retained it better as the game went on... 6
The flanker was making his first start since the opening night of the season and he was a powerful presence before being forced off... 6
Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)
JAMES WILSON (for Tuala 40)
Came on with Saints 12-3 up and wasn’t able to help them keep hold of their lead as Exeter came on strong... 5
TOM WOOD (for Fisher 54)
Unusually, the England star, who has been in superb form, gave away a penalty or two and also missed a couple of tackles you would normally see him make... 5
STEPHEN MYLER (for Hanrahan 55)
Couldn’t help Saints get their control back and was never able to dictate the game from the front foot... 5
CHRON STAR MAN - Gareth Steenson (Exeter Chiefs)