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'That is the reason why the bench looks like that' - Phil Dowson shocked by comeback

By PA
Rusi Tuima is tackled - PA

Northampton rugby director Phil Dowson struggled to sum up a remarkable Gallagher Premiership encounter against Exeter after his team fought back to win 42-36 at Sandy Park.

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Saints returned to the Premiership summit in breathtaking fashion as centre Rory Hutchinson’s try with the clock in the red secured an unlikely win.

They trailed 26-0 after just 23 minutes, but a spectacular recovery that included three tries for wing Ollie Sleightholme took Saints above Harlequins and top of the table.

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“It was not the way we planned it!” Dowson said. “I am not sure if I am able to sum it up. We spoke during the week about how good they (Exeter) are straight out of the blocks, especially at home.

“They score more tries in the first 10 minutes than anyone else. We talked about starting fast – we didn’t – and 26-0 down was as poor as we have been.

“But those two tries we scored just before the break really gave us at least equilibrium to sort of regroup at half-time and get to a point where we could get back into the game.

“Had it been 26-0 at half-time you are talking about a mountain to climb, whereas 26-14 at least you are saying ‘we’ve hurt them and you can create some belief around it’.”

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Key to Saints’ transformation were strong second-half appearances off the bench by England pair Alex Mitchell and Tommy Freeman.

“The bench did make a difference. It’s great to have the likes of Alex Mitchell, Tom Pearson, Tommy Freeman, Curtis Langdon coming off the bench to add impact,” Dowson added.

“You go from Europe to the Premiership and it’s non-stop, week to week. There is not one player who is going to play every minute of every game, so we have to make sure we trust the squad and give guys their opportunity.

“That is the reason why the bench looks like that. They have quality and energy, and that is how we get the results like that.

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“The start wasn’t great, but you could see as the game went on how much we grew into things, and we got our result at the end.”

Saints’ victory made it seven games unbeaten and ended Exeter’s run of 23 home matches without defeat in all competitions.

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

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.

But despite defeat, Exeter rugby director Rob Baxter reacted in upbeat fashion after what was an all-time Premiership classic.

Baxter said: “We know Northampton are a good side, we knew it would be a tough challenge and I’ve just said to the lads I couldn’t be prouder of them than I am now.

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“Over the 80 minutes, did we do some good things? Yes, we did. I am not going to criticise the players, because we couldn’t have turned up any better than we did.

“It was an incredible game of Premiership rugby, and I am far from overwhelmed by today’s result or feeling too disappointed by it.

“We lost momentum in the game and it could have gone completely away from us, but we refused to let that happen.

“We are in the top four in the Premiership, and it is a really exciting time for us to be in the thick of it.”

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