Rob Baxter rejected the suggestion his Exeter Chiefs side have been derailed by this season’s law changes after suffering a second successive defeat in what has proved a dismal start to the season.
The big post-match debate at Sandy Park surrounded the lack of early-season form from last season’s Premiership runners-up, in what was their sixth successive final, as they suffered a narrow late home loss to Northampton Saints.
It may have taken a second penalty from the boot of George Furbank in the final minute to clinch the win for Northampton, but it was what went on in the previous 79 minutes that hurt the Chiefs even more after they had opened up a 14-point lead inside eight minutes.
“The one law change that people have missed, although it wasn’t overly refereed today, is the pre-bind latching close to the line. It was a real strength of Exeter’s,” claimed Saints boss Chris Boyd.
“Once they got to within five metres, with that pre-bind latch it was very difficult to stop them. I think that law change has been significant. I was very pleased with our line-out defence and we also stole a few of their throws.
“The law hasn’t changed on the driving line-out, it is on the pick and go afterwards. That wouldn’t have happened to a full-strength Exeter pack. They have got a lot of guys missing and I feel for Rob and his boys.
“It is a tough way to start a season with a number of players coming back from injury and others unavailable. But you make the most of it and we’re still pleased to have come here and got the win.”
Having turned one close-range line-out into a try at the posts from close range by Don Armand right at the start of the game, the Sandy Park faithful - returning to the ground for the first time in 18 months - would have expected more of the same as the game wore on.
It didn’t happen, though. Five more perfect positions in the first half failed to end in a score, one of them ending in a heap on the Saints line and earning the defending side a goal-line dropout.
Last season that would have been a five-metre scrum to the attacking side, but on this occasion James Grayson lofted a ball to the 22, Saints got it back and Tom Collins raced up to the home 22.
The Chiefs lost the line-out and Matt Proctor added insult to injury by making a mockery of the home defence to score the try that levelled things up at 14-14.
But Baxter’s view differs to that of Boyd. He knows that once he can have Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill, Jonny Gray, Sam Simmonds, Jacques Vermulen and Dave Ewers back in his pack things should be different.
“There wasn’t a law change that hurt us today, other than the maul that went over their line. Outside of that we weren’t penalised for pre-latching,” he said. “We don’t pre-latch with two people, it is a misconception about us. Other teams used to.
“The only thing that is hurting us at the moment is us. We aren’t as good at what we are doing as we need to be and we aren’t doing what we are doing with enough conviction.”
This weekend’s trip to Sale Sharks looks like being a step too far for Baxter’s team while they are still shorn of their British and Irish Lions, England Elite Player Squad internationals and injury victims, so things could get worse before they get any better.