Saints Put Paid to Play Off Hopes
Paddy Bettle on the Chiefs’ last home game of the 2011/12 season.
Until this weekend, Devon’s premier side looked ready to make history by qualifying for the play offs of the Aviva Premiership.
Alas, that dream now looks shattered. Exeter’s hopes of making it into the final four of the Aviva were sadly snuffed out by an in-form Northampton Saints side this afternoon, and the 18-15 defeat now means that the Chiefs must wait anxiously for the result of the Saints clash against Worcester Warriors on the 5th of May to see if they have any chance at all of making the play-offs.
Nonetheless, head coach and fan’s favourite Rob Baxter was quick to point out the positives; namely that the side has already qualified for the Heineken Cup next year, and that this season is still only the second the West Country club has spent in the top flight of national rugby.
Having won all five of their previous games in the Aviva, Exeter appeared in good form going into the match. As such their poor performance and quick concession of a soft three points from Saints fly half Stephen Myler within the opening moments of the game came as rather a surprise.
However, the Chiefs rallied swiftly, and replied in the best way possible via a try from Gonzalo Comacho, and a conversion from the ever accurate Ignacio Mieres.
The Argentinean then went on to post a further three points on the board before half time, extending Exeter’s lead to eight point. Luckily for the Chiefs, some challenging overhead conditions prevented Myler from capitalising on a couple of penalty chances towards the end of the first half, and were thus able to go in with their noses ahead.
This was unfortunately not to last. Despite a number of well organised and formidable drives toward the Northampton end zone, the superior professionalism of the Saints told with Chris Ashton going over the touchline to score after collecting a superb pierce of passing play orchestrated by Northampton scrum half Lee Dickson.
The wind, however, again proved too much for Myler, who missed an admittedly challenging conversion attempt from the sideline, leaving the Chiefs just ahead for the time being.
Now, however, the luck turned. Mieres’ attempt at a long distance penalty was thwarted by the previously acquiescent wind, and a momentary lapse of concentration in front of the posts by prop forward Hoani Tui allowed Myler another crack at goal, which he duly scored. This score marked a change in the momentum of the game, with the Saints now happy to preserve their lead and wear down the clock.
Unable to produce one of their by now infamous come backs, the Chiefs instead seemed to buckle under the strain. A turned over scrum within the Exeter 22 allowed Northampton back Paul Diggin to scamper across at the corner, extending the lead to eight points with less than ten minutes left on the clock.
Defiant as ever Exeter pushed on. Piling on immense pressure in a last ditch attempt to grab some bonus points, head coach Rob’s brother Richard Baxter ploughed over the line to hand the side five extra points.
Sadly by now it was too late, and the match finished 18-15 to the visitors. In order to qualify for the final round of the Aviva Premiership, Exeter must now win their final match of the season, which is away to current champions London Saracens on the 5th May.
Although not yet mathematically impossible, it now appears all but certain that the Devon side will finish just outside of the top four, ending hopes for the prospect of their first championship since joining the Premiership in May 2010.
That said, if Exeter have proven anything at all this season, it’s that anything really is possible, and that breathtaking last minute comebacks are something which they deliver particularly well.
Whatever the result at Vicarage Road on the 5th May, the Chiefs will surely be justifiably proud of their achievements thus far, and confident that a long and bright future awaits them in the years ahead.
Exeter Chiefs v. Northampton Saints was the last home game of the 2011/2012 season.
Photo: Getty Images