Northampton Saints 34 Exeter Chiefs 19: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

For the past few years, Saints have so often been spoken of as a team with a huge amount of potential.
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But the big question has been: when will they actually realise it?

They have developed an attacking game that has turned heads, but they have never seemed to be able to deliver a consistent, all-court style that can bring them big trophies.

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They have been stylish without being streetwise, and that has seen them undone in the big moments, by Leicester Tigers and Saracens.

Fraser Dingwall was mobbed after bagging Saints' bonus-point try (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)Fraser Dingwall was mobbed after bagging Saints' bonus-point try (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Fraser Dingwall was mobbed after bagging Saints' bonus-point try (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Those teams have ended Saints' title dreams at the Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final stage during the past two seasons, before going on to lift the trophy themselves.

The black, green and gold showed flashes of their ability in both matches, particularly when pushing Steve Borthwick's Tigers team to their limits during the first half at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

But in the crucial moments, their composure and inexperience on the big stage cost them.

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Leicester, steered by George Ford, and Saracens, expertly guided by Owen Farrell, booked safe passage to Twickenham.

While Saints' attacking thrust could only take them so far.

So, under the guidance of Phil Dowson, a man who knew a thing or two about forward power during his time as a player, there has been a concerted effort to develop the attributes that have been lacking in recent times.

Saints used the summer to bulk up, and they brought in defence coach Lee Radford in a bid to front up, too.

So far, the signs have been increasingly good.

And on Sunday, there was a glowing example of what this team wants to be and can now be.

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Saints welcomed an Exeter Chiefs side who had crushed Saracens and Sale Sharks in the formative stages of the league season.

An Exeter Chiefs side who rightly earned plenty of praise as they rebuild following a summer of change.

But this time, it was Saints who made a team look like they lacked maturity.

It was Saints who looked like the streetwise outfit that has so often proved to be their kryptonite.

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It was Saints who kept their discipline, who kicked at the right times and who ran at the right times.

And that, allied with those trademark flashes of attacking class, as evidenced by a fantastic flowing effort that resulted in a try for Alex Mitchell, made them a truly impressive side indeed.

It was the kind of complete performance that Saints supporters have been desperate to see.

And how they enjoyed it as the decibel levels at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens went up a notch or two on Sunday afternoon.

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Often when a team is building, it will start with set piece, defence and overall physicality.

Those are the traditional foundations, and a side then looks to develop that attacking threat as the cherry on top.

Saints have actually tipped that traditional recipe upside down, starting with the cherry before baking the cake.

They were so sweet in attack under Chris Boyd but often lacked the stability to move to the next level.

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On Sunday, and in wins against Newcastle Falcons and Bath on the previous two weekends, they have started to show they now have the platform they have craved.

And when they get that, they really can be a team to be feared because they already have that razor-sharp attacking ability in place.

What has also been hugely positive is the depth they have created in their squad, and the coaches got their decisions spot on against Exeter.

They rotated the likes of Alex Coles, Tom James and Tom Pearson, and all of those came off the bench at the perfect time to have an impact.

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And when you consider that the likes of Manny Iyogun, Temo Mayanavanua, Lewis Ludlam, Juarno Augustus, James Ramm and George Furbank weren't involved at all, it shows just how good the selection options now are.

Of course, it's only early days, and bigger tests of this team's credentials are to come, particularly this Saturday at local rivals Leicester Tigers.

Form goes out of the window on derby day, and Tigers, who suffered a narrow home defeat against Harlequins last Saturday, will be desperate to make a statement.

But so will Saints.

They have displayed an all-court game, now they know they need to ensure it is delivered consistently.

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And if they can do that, then this could finally be the season in which potential turns into a trophy.

How they rated…

GEORGE HENDY – worried Exeter every time he got the chance to stretch his legs and was solid under the high ball again in another hugely promising performance… 8

TOMMY FREEMAN – the winger is a class act and he got Saints on the front foot with an early try before causing Exeter plenty more problems… 8.5

FRASER DINGWALL – the skipper led from the front, eventually putting the icing on the cake of a big personal display with the bonus-point try… 9

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RORY HUTCHINSON – his defensive work has not gone unnoticed this season and when he gets the chance to create, he takes it… 8

TOM SEABROOK – as signings go, this man is right up there. He arrived somewhat under the radar but he has been superb, displaying all of his strength, speed and awareness here… 8.5

FIN SMITH - CHRON STAR MAN – what a display from the fly-half, who set up the opening try with a lovely grubber and went on to deliver a nerveless showing from the tee while controlling the game so well… 9

ALEX MITCHELL - with this man back, Saints have some serious options at fly-half, and he showed his class with a typically clever showing that was capped with a picturebook try… 9

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ALEX WALLER – his contribution to the season so far should not be understated as he is helping Saints more than hold their own up front every week… 8

CURTIS LANGDON – notched another try as he cleverly dived over in the corner from a maul and his overall physicality and dynamism is eye-catching… 8.5

PAUL HILL – has been hugely impressive since returning to the team and he was involved in a big team showing here… 8

ALEX MOON – always works so hard and he did what he could to put pressure on Exeter with ball in hand… 8

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CHUNYA MUNGA – helped to keep Saints steady at lineout time and wasn’t short of physicality… 7.5

COURTNEY LAWES – it was great to see the big man back at the Gardens, and he issued yet another reminder of his legendary ability… 8.5

ANGUS SCOTT-YOUNG – week in, week out, this guy is so solid for Saints, making his tackles at every turn and ensuring the opposition gain little ground… 8

SAM GRAHAM – is enjoying a superb start to the season and he was always ready to push Saints forward here before unfortunately suffering a blow to the head late on… 8

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

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SAM MATAVESI (for Langdon 52) – a really eye-catching cameo from the hooker, and not just because of his bright orange boots. He gained Saints ground every time he got the ball, played a key role in the Mitchell try and added so much energy… 8

ETHAN WALLER (for A Waller 52) – found himself on the wrong side of the referee as he gave away a penalty for a high clear-out that saw a try ruled out, but he did what he could to influence the game in a positive manner… 6

TREVOR DAVISON (for Hill 52) – cranked up the heat on Exeter with some huge carries and looked hungry for action having missed the previous weekend due to illness… 7

ALEX COLES (for Munga 52) – a fantastic 28 minutes from the lofty lock, who was the catalyst for the Mitchell try as he delivered a stunning offload… 8

TOM LITCHFIELD (for Hutchinson 59) – some more crucial minutes for the young centre who did okay after coming on with little more than 20 minutes to go… 6

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