Sam Simmonds was taken off in the 63rd minute
- Northampton Saints 26 Exeter Chiefs 29
Sam Simmonds suffered an injury scare as Exeter Chiefs all but sealed a home play-off semi-final by overturning an 18-0 half-time deficit against 14-man Northampton.
Simmonds, the No 8 who was a surprise inclusion in the Lions squad, was immediately replaced in the 63rd minute after Courtney Lawes landed awkwardly on an ankle he had hurt a few weeks ago against Bristol. Rob Baxter, the Exeter director of rugby, was not able to give an immediate prognosis on the extent of the damage but indicated he will not hesitate to play him if given the all-clear.
“It is one of those things, we will take everything into account and if the right thing medically is for him not to play against Sale then he won’t,” Baxter said.
“People are either fit or they are not. Sam likes playing. He does not think rest suits him – but if his ankle isn’t right, it isn’t right. He won’t want to be cotton-wool wrapped for the Lions and we don’t know the extent of the injury at all. Right here and now I don’t want to make a call on how bad it is. It could be very minor.”
Another Lion, fly half Dan Biggar, was also replaced with a mild pectoral injury, although Northampton were playing down its seriousness. Until he went off, Biggar was at the heart of Saints’ best performance of the season, considering they lost second row David Ribbans to a red card after 13 minutes. For the first 40 minutes, the champions were cowed and beaten up, much to Baxter’s displeasure.
“We lost physical battles all over the place,” Baxter said. “I could believe how quickly we went off plan. We changed things on the plan because they had 14 men. They were counter-rucking us for fun at one stage. That is just a mental thing.”
But a week after delivering a record breaking 12-try victory against Newcastle, Exeter pulled off their biggest-ever comeback at Franklin’s Gardens. It was a case of keep calm and pick and go as Sam Skinner, Stuart Hogg, Stu Townsend and Ollie Devoto’s tries brought Exeter level.
Joe Simmonds’ 74th penalty gave them the lead, which they defended expertly. In theory, Sale could pip Exeter to second place by beating them with a bonus point at Sandy Park next week, but odds are that will form a dress rehearsal for their play-off encounter.
Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson will have taken note of how Exeter were blasted at the breakdown in a first half. Lawes set a tone for a thunderous 40 minutes in defence and was ravenous over the ball. Biggar was no less committed but also created the opening two tries for Rory Hutchinson.
Rory Hutchinson dotted down twice for Northampton
The first came with a beautiful delay of pass for the centre to go over in the corner. The second with a perfect dink over the top of Exeter’s defence that had been shunted backwards by Lewis Ludlam’s carry. Hutchinson gathered, hacked ahead – muscling Hogg aside in the process – and just about grounded the ball.
In between those scores, Ribbans was sent off after he failed to react to Luke Cowan-Dickie dipping in the carry and his shoulder made contact with the head. The decision seemed to galvanise Northampton as they flooded every breakdown with frightening ferocity.
Exeter, uncharacteristically, had no answer as they were turned over virtually every time they entered the Northampton 22 with Lawes acting as the disruptor-in-chief. Biggar added a penalty and a drop goal to extend the lead.
But as Baxter said Exeter then managed to “flick the switch” as the dancing feet of Facundo Cordero helped create two tries in eight minutes. Skinner scored the first with a further assist in the carry from Harry Williams before Joe Simmonds threw a long miss pass to Ian Whitten who popped it back to Hogg.
Biggar replied with a penalty to keep Northampton 21-12 ahead but scrum-half Townsend immediately reduced the deficit when he profited from a massive Exeter maul to stroll over untouched.
As inevitable as Exeter’s victory may have appeared at this stage, Northampton refused to read the script as Alex Mitchell and full back Tommy Freeman, who impressed in front of the watching Eddie Jones, put hooker Mikey Haywood over in the corner.
Exeter, though, kept coming with Townsend creating a try for fellow replacement Devoto to bring the away team level, with Simmonds’ penalty proving to be the final score.