Northampton Saints 26 Exeter Chiefs 29: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

At half-time on Sunday afternoon, the Saints supporters inside Franklin's Gardens must have felt like they were in some sort of rugby heaven.

Monday, 7th June 2021, 1:43 pm
Rory Hutchinson scored twice for Saints (pictures: Peter Short)

The sun was shining, the beers were flowing, soprano Emily Haig was singing some angelic songs and, most importantly, Saints were 18-0 up against the champions.

That scoreline would have been stunning enough with 15 men, but Chris Boyd's side had played 27 of the first 40 minutes with 14 after David Ribbans was red carded.

And Ribbans is not just any player, he is probably going to be Saints' player of the season when the awards are handed out.

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But Saints refused to be deterred, showing an incredible amount of spirit and ability in the face of danger to deliver for the 4,000 supporters in attendance.

That was until Exeter finally assumed a measure of control as half-time - as it so often does - burst the balloon.

The atmosphere, which had been raucous, fell slightly flat as fans returned to their seats for the second half - and Exeter capitalised.

The Chiefs roared back into the game, but, remarkably, Saints once again stood tall in adversity, scoring again through Mike Haywood.

Mike Haywood scored during the second half

The home bench made a big impact, with the Manny Iyogun and Alex Mitchell both involved in the move that saw fellow replacement Haywood dive over to put his team 26-19 in front.

However, in the final stages, it was like watching a horse trying to climb the hill, being chased down by the favourite.

Exeter got a helping hand or two and went in front six minutes from time.

Still, Saints tried to summon the last ounce of energy from a sizeable tank, mounting one final attack and winning a penalty in Chiefs territory.

But a pass eventually the wrong way on the right and the referee blew the whistle to put the seal on the Exeter success.

Nevertheless, the Gardens was understandably unanimous in acclaiming the home team, who had given everything they had to try to deliver one final victory on home soil this season.

It wasn't to be, but the first-half display will live long in the memory, ranking alongside the best 40-minute performances Saints have produced in recent history.

It was perhaps only rivalled by the first half of the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff in 2011 and the first half in the Premiership semi-final at Saracens in 2013.

That was how good this was.

Saints may not have got the win, but this felt like a moral victory.

It was a show of spirit that seems to bode well for next season and the fact Boyd's side came so close to completing a season double against the champions is a sterling sign.

Saints will definitely finish fifth this time round, ahead of local rivals Leicester Tigers.

And while there will be disappointment at how a play-off place has slipped away, this final league standing is far better than many would have expected given how last season ended.

As Boyd said after the defeat to Exeter, in many ways it has been close but no cigar for Saints.

But they can allow themselves to go to Bath and enjoy the final day of what has been a roller coaster campaign.

Just one more twist and turn left before the players can sit back and reflect on what has been and what might have been.

How they rated...

TOMMY FREEMAN

Another unfazed display from the incredibly talented young full-back, who showed plenty of physicality and class here... 8

OLLIE SLEIGHTHOLME

How Saints would have loved to have this man on the field when they were under pressure in the second half, but it wasn't to be as he was forced off with concussion in the first period... 6

MATT PROCTOR

Made a fizzing start to the game, flooring Tom O'Flaherty and offering plenty in defence and attack as he really came to the fore... 8.5

RORY HUTCHINSON - CHRON STAR MAN

Was left out of the Scotland squad for the summer and looked like a player with a point to prove as he not only scored twice but defended stoically on so many occasions... 9

TAQELE NAIYARAVORO

Looked so hungry for work, popping up all over the place as he desperately tried to push him team around and over the Chiefs... 7.5

DAN BIGGAR

Showed his class here with a commanding display that also included some moments of brilliance, with two key assists for Hutchinson's try and a drop goal to boot... 9

TOM JAMES

The scrum-half has been a real find for Saints and he could be pleased with his effort here as he set the tone during the first half with his speed of thought... 7.5

ALEX WALLER

The co-captain was desperate to deliver a win for his team and he put plenty of effort into trying to achieve it... 7.5

SAM MATAVESI

Signed a new contract at Saints recently and once again demonstrated his importance to the team with another big performance... 7.5

EHREN PAINTER

Found himself on the wrong side of the referee on a few occasions but this was still a decent showing from the young prop... 7

DAVID RIBBANS

Started like a train, flying into Exeter and looking likely to have another big day, but he just got his tackle technique wrong and saw red because of it

API RATUNIYARAWA

A mountainous presence in the Saints second row, doing the work of two men after Ribbans went off... 8.5

COURTNEY LAWES

This was a simply incredible showing from the Lions lock, who pickpocketed Exeter on so many occasions while also using his power to batter the away defence... 9

LEWIS LUDLAM

Makes so many metres for his side, carrying with a ferocity that catches the eye time and again, showing just how passionate he is about the cause. Made 20 tackles without missing one!... 9

TOM WOOD

Week after week, this man puts everything he has on the line for his team, thundering around the park, trying to put pressure on the opposition... 8.5

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

FRASER DINGWALL (for Sleightholme 24)

Certainly didn't shy away from the action and did what he could to take the fight to Exeter, in defence and attack... 7

ALEX MOON (for Ratuniyarawa 58)

The lock worked hard to get involved and he tried to help stem the tide as Exeter kept pushing forward... 6.5

ALEX MITCHELL (for James 58)

Helped to lift the tempo for Saints and played a key role in Haywood's try as Saints desperately tried to stay ahead... 7

MANNY IYOGUN (for Waller 59)

A really good cameo from the prop, who carried with plenty of power and produced an off-the-floor pass that allowed Saints to keep the ball alive and eventually score... 7

MIKE HAYWOOD (for Matavesi 59)

The hooker etched his name on the scoresheet and he showed so much desire after coming on, thundering around the field... 7