Northampton showed their Aviva Premiership title credentials with a sparkling first-half display as they rattled up a 38-11 bonus-point opening day win over Exeter.
All eyes were on big summer signing George North but Saints’ tries came from Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood, George and Ken Pisi, as well as Samu Manoa, with Stephen Myler landing all five conversions and a penalty.
Exeter’s lineout was poor and they squandered chances, replying only with a Dean Mumm try just before the hour mark and two Gareth Steenson penalties.
After a summer of soul-searching following his red card in the Premiership final which led to him being banned from the British and Irish Lions tour, Hartley started the new campaign determined to put things right.
In the second minute the 27-year-old, who offered to give up the Northampton captaincy only for director of rugby Jim Mallinder to persuade him to carry on, turned down an easy three points and, when Luther Burrell threw a big miss-pass to the hooker, he ignored Ken Pisi on his shoulder and hurtled to the line and just about squeezed over.
A rolling maul by Exeter brought them under the posts, where Phil Dowson dived on the ball to kill the move. Referee JP Doyle showed the flanker a yellow card and the visitors took the three points.
However, as Northampton then powered to a 31-6 first-half lead, the home crowd had their first sight of North. The Welshman put on the afterburners to sprint 40 metres out of his 22 and received rapturous applause after he was finally bundled into touch.
Northampton eased up and, as Exeter dominated the second half, they were given a helping hand on 50 minutes when Saints were reduced to 14 men for a second time, this time Courtney Lawes being yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle with his shoulder on Matt Jess.
Scrum-half Haydn Thomas was held up over the line but, as soon as the home side were back to full strength, Exeter skipper Mumm squirmed over from a scrum close to the line.
It served only to spark Northampton back into life and they added a fifth try through their forwards in the 72nd minute when Manoa was on the end of a lineout drive.
Meanwhile, Sale Sharks capitalised on a lacklustre Gloucester to begin their Aviva Premiership season with a bang.
Two tries for Sale by wing Mark Cueto and centre Andy Forsyth plus penalties by stand-off Nick MacLeod and full-back Tom Arscott helped seal the Sharks’ 16-22 victory.
Replacement Joe Ford added a drop goal towards the end and the gap, opened up during the first period, proved too much for Gloucester to close despite three penalties by No.10 Freddie Burns and a second-half try from centre Henry Trinder.