You can usually find out a little bit more about your club side during the Six Nations. Shorn of key men, clubs can either step up or wilt. There are a couple in that latter category. Gloucester and Saints have both taken big steps backwards since the Northern Hemisphere’s premier international competition came calling: three losses from three for both those top four pretenders.
The opposite is true of Exeter. Despite the Six Nations, Exeter have got stronger: their latest 57-7 victory against third-place Saints is a ringing endorsement of their Premiership campaign. It is tricky to look at things through a Northampton prism at the moment, but I don’t believe anyone can live with Chiefs. The combination of power and accuracy is devastating. Time and again, they punched holes in the Saints midfield and flooded every breakdown. And whilst they might not have the flamboyance of say, Bristol, Exeter’s dirty work is so good it should come with its own polythene bag.
It was a late first-half one-two which did the damage. Up to the 34th minute, Saints were still on their feet. They were struggling with the sheer physicality of a Chiefs’ side, whose different type of punches always land heavy, but they were still fighting. However, Saints headed into half time 22-0 down, glancing sideways as if to be sure that was really the score, and emerged, fog headed into a second period that blew them away.
It is, in principle, a power game. Short-range missile after short-range missile for the Saints to deal with; big man followed big man down furrows almost precut in the Sandy Park pitch. Each and every one of them lurching for extra yards or, when it offered itself, the try line. Hill, Taione and Kirsten all clambered through Northampton bodies to dot down in the first half. The energy it saps from the opposition was clear to see as the second half opened up. If the first forty represented neat body work, the second was all hook and uppercut. Saints heaved difficult, rasping breaths beneath cracked ribs, unable to move their defenders into position quickly enough. O’Flaherty started to scamper, Hendrickson marauded down corridors and late on, Sam Simmonds opened up his gait. All the point-scoring damage possible because of the first half pounding.
It would be churlish to single out one man, too many play a part when Exeter are excellent, but you have to wonder where and how Rob Baxter found Jacques Vermeulen. At the beginning of the season, few would have thought the Chiefs’ back row was one that needed improving yet, Vermeulen has brought something different. Well, maybe not different: the same, just better. He plagued the visitor’s breakdown. His hands were everywhere; reaching, groping, spoiling: he won battles in which he shouldn’t have been competing and turned over Saints ball with consistent ease.
And it says a lot that Exeter haven’t normally got space for someone like Tom Hendrickson. And it says even more that, when he gets a chance, as he did on Sunday afternoon, he plays like he did. Time and again, he was fed ball with a channel to attack. It’s not a terribly complicated idea but it isn’t easy to organise yourself with the speed and accuracy of the Chiefs. Each one of the squad are ready to go; so deep and detailed is the preparation, whichever combination of player Baxter daubs on his teamsheet, the message and mission remain the same. My guess is that this will be Exeter’s Premiership at a canter. Sale may impress, perhaps with players back Saints will shine again, Bristol’s free-flowing style may catch the eye, but no one will be able to match Exeter’s all-court game. And yet, most importantly, this has been a long time coming and critically, this is excellence forged over time. And in no small part owing to a word that only produces scowls in Premiership circles.
However it came about, however heinous the crime, the overspending at Saracens has engendered this Devon cream. Spurred on by the false line drawn by the north-Londoners, Baxter’s men have dug further and deeper than perhaps they would have done without it. No one has cried longer and harder about the injustice than those down in Devon but Exeter are this good because of Saracens, not in spite of them. Saracens’ financial doping has a glorious byproduct: an Exeter side capable of overcoming the illegally-oversized and current Premiership Champions. Having trailed the steroid-taking pacesetter for so long, Chiefs can now run free, their body stronger for the fight, however unfair it might have been.
It’s a curious situation. One that will sit as uncomfortably with many as the tomahawk chop itself. Exeter’s dominance in the Premiership over the next few years will be very hard to break. And that is thanks, in no small part, to the team they love to hate.