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Ollie Sleightholme hat-trick helps Northampton beat Exeter in thriller

By PA
Ollie Sleightholme - PA

Ollie Sleightholme scored three tries as Northampton moved back on top of the Gallagher Premiership after staging a stunning fightback to beat Exeter 42-36 at Sandy Park.

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Saints recovered from 26 points adrift midway through the first half to make it seven games unbeaten and end Exeter’s run of 23 home matches without defeat.

Wing Sleightholme’s treble was the highlight for Northampton, who clinched a spectacular victory through Rory Hutchinson’s touchdown in the game’s final play.

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There were also tries for skipper George Furbank and scrum-half Callum Braley, with Fin Smith kicking six conversions in a bonus-point triumph.

Shell-shocked Chiefs were rampant early on as flanker Jacques Vermeulen touched down twice, and there were also scores from scrum-half Stu Townsend, wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and replacement Rusi Tuima, with Henry Slade booting four conversions and a penalty.

Uncapped Six Nations hopeful Feyi-Waboso, who is eligible for England and Wales, impressed in front of watching England head coach Steve Borthwick, while Wales boss Warren Gatland is also thought to be monitoring him closely.

Exeter showed five changes from the team that beat Bristol last time out, including starts for full-back Tommy Wyatt, centre Joe Hawkins and hooker Jack Yeandle.

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Ollie Sleightholme
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso – Press Association

Saints, meanwhile, had England internationals Alex Mitchell and Tommy Freeman among their replacements, with Courtney Lawes rested and not involved in the matchday 23.

Exeter, unbeaten at home in all competitions since October 2022, took just six minutes to open their account.

Northampton could not get out of their own half and Chiefs’ forwards exerted wave after wave of pressure that ended with Vermeulen crashing over from close range and Slade adding the conversion.

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There was more pain for Saints inside the opening quarter as Exeter maintained a vice-like grip on the contest, and Slade’s clever midfield pass created space for Feyi-Waboso to finish off and open up a 12-point lead.

Northampton were at sixes and sevens, with their defence soon prised open again when Townsend broke clear from a lineout and sprinted unopposed to the line, with Slade’s conversion making it 19-0.

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And Exeter secured a bonus-point only 23 minutes into the game as more woeful Northampton defending was easily exploited by Vermeulen, whose second touchdown was converted by Slade and left Saints in disarray, 26 points behind.

Saints saw a glimmer of hope 10 minutes before the interval when they capitalised on a yellow card for Exeter captain Dafydd Jenkins by scoring two tries in three minutes.

Braley pounced for the first following Jenkins’ sin-binning for a high challenge, then Furbank sparked a flowing move from deep that was finished by Sleightholme, with Smith landing both conversions.

Exeter remained in charge, yet Northampton showed enough during the second quarter to suggest they were far from down and out.

And when Chiefs had a second player yellow-carded – Slade for a high hit on Saints centre Burger Odendaal – Northampton looked to continue their revival as Mitchell and Freeman went on 10 minutes into the second half.

Furbank then pounced for Saints’ third try, converted by Smith, as Exeter were once again punished on the scoreboard for having a player off the pitch, before a piece of Mitchell magic sent Sleightholme clear, with Smith’s conversion putting Northampton ahead.

A Slade penalty 20 minutes from time helped Exeter regain the initiative, but the drama continued at pace with Sleightholme’s third effort before Tuima’s late try was converted by the England centre.

That looked to be enough for Exeter, yet Saints inevitably had other ideas and Hutchinson sealed a remarkable triumph.

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