It has been a while, but we are pleased to have snuck into the play-offs, said Tom Wood, Northamptons England flanker. It was not the most convincing top-four finish and three other teams could have made it, but it was our goal this season. Exeter and Saracens have been the best two teams in the league this season, out in front from the off and well clear of everyone else.
Read more Exeter would expect to beat us more often than not, but on any given day we can cause an upset. The league has turned into a cup competition and, as someone said, we have a punchers chance. We are not going there to make up the numbers or have a free crack but to really challenge. If we get our game right, we can cause them problems.
Why its been Dan Biggars toughest season and his warning to Exeter Chiefs
Northampton topped the table four years ago but then declined, steadily at first before gathering momentum. It culminated in the dismissal of the long-serving Jim Mallinder as the director of rugby midway through last season and his replacement in the summer by the New Zealander Chris Boyd, who has turned a club renowned for its risk-free approach into one of the Premierships most potent in broken play.
The first six weeks were a challenge, said Wood. We had a few slip-ups and at one point we were near the bottom of the table. It took some time to adapt to Chriss way of playing and gel as a team with a number of youngsters breaking into the team, along with signings like Dan Biggar. It was a significant reshuffle but we have been playing with confidence in recent months and when we get our attacking game going, we are incredibly dangerous.
We have had a fresh start and it has given us impetus. An unbelievable crop of youngsters have stepped up this season, but the Premiership is such a tough, competitive tournament that you have to keep evolving and improving. Newcastle were where we are 12 months ago, and now they are going down. Perhaps they felt comfortable after doing so much hard work, but you cannot let up because the wheels can come off so quickly.
Painter is part of a fresh front row, with Saints making a total of four changes to the team that lost 40-21 at Exeter last Saturday.
Northampton finished the regular season at Exeter last week, losing 40-21 after fading in the second half. Their reward was an immediate return after Harlequins lost at Wasps and finished fifth. It is interesting when you play a team back-to-back, said Wood, who will be on the bench with Boyd moving Courtney Lawes to the back row and fortifying the lineout. You learn a few things and there is a bit of bluff and double-bluff.
We have turned around defeats in Europe. We lost to Leinster and Ulster at home and won the following week. There will be little outside pressure and expectation on us in Exeter, although it will be different internally. We have to get certain things right: we struggled on their out-in in the scrum last week and they won a few penalties. They like to apply pressure and if you concede a penalty on the halfway line they will kick to the corner and use their driving game, which they are very good at. We have to deprive them of that and play with real attacking intent. Northampton have gone with a new front row but Dylan Hartley will again be absent.
Read more It means controlling the ball and forcing our style on them, said Wood. Our half-backs [Biggar and Cobus Reinach] have been influential this season. They pull the strings. Dan settled in from day one. He is a natural leader who talks well and rallies the troops. He plays with a huge amount of emotion and competitive edge. You can see that in his body language on the pitch. He is not interested in resting on his reputation and has been at the centre of everything for us.
At 32, Wood is one of the clubs most experienced players, but he has a year to go on his contract and would like to stay beyond that. I hope my best days are not behind me, he said. I have got a lot of miles on the clock but still feel fit and strong. The future at Northampton looks really good and I would like to be around for a few more years.
Northampton director of rugby Chris Boyd says his side can reverse last weekends loss at Exeter Chiefs as they return to Sandy Park for the Premiership semi-final.
“Its interesting this week as were playing the same opposition and the guys know whats coming,” Boyd said.
Despite losing at Sandy Park, other results went his sides way as they finished fourth on 56 points – the lowest total ever to make the Premierships post-season matches.
Despite Saints finishing ninth last year the New Zealander said he felt making the top four was a realistic ambition when he arrived in August.
“At the start of the year, when you looked around the room at the potential in the squad, making this stage was absolutely possible,” the 60-year-old added to BBC Radio Northampton.
“You dont know when youre next going to get back here, so this is definitely a huge opportunity. Yes, were still building as a squad, but lets go full on at this game.”
For Exeter boss Rob Baxter the challenge is to ensure his relatively unchanged side keep their focus in a game they are favourites to win.
“Its really about focusing on yourselves and the processes that have worked for you, and probably not getting frustrated because things wont be exactly the same. They cant be, rugbys too complex a game,” he told BBC Sport.
“Probably the team that dont get frustrated because things dont quite go the way they want them to and can actually knuckle down and work across the 80 minutes will be the team wholl come through.”
Having impressed in beating Northampton last Saturday, Exeter make just one change to their starting side, with winger Tom OFlaherty preferred to Olly Woodburn, who drops out of the squad.
It means England and British and Irish Lions winger Jack Nowell continues at full-back, while prop Alex Hepburn, who was a late withdrawal last week, returns to the bench.
England captain Dylan Hartley is not fit enough to play, despite Boyd saying he had a chance after last weeks defeat.
All four of Boyds changes to his Northampton line-up come in the forwards as Francois van Wyk, James Fish, and Ehren Painter form a new-look front row.
Flanker James Gibson is replaced by Api Ratuniyarawa who starts in the second row, with Courtney Lawes moving back to the blindside.
Exeter: Nowell; Cuthbert, Slade, Devoto, OFlaherty; Simmonds, White; Moon, Yeandle (capt), Williams, Dennis, Hill, Ewers, Armand, Kvesic
Northampton: Tuala; Collins, Hutchinson, Francis, Naiyaravoro; Biggar, Reinach; van Wyk, Fish, Painter, Moon, Ratuniyarawa, Lawes, Ludlam, Harrison (capt)