The cliché “neither team deserved to lose” is older than the game of rugby itself, however it could not have been more applicable than on Saturday at a sun-soaked Twickenham as Exeter and Wasps played out one of the most gripping Premiership finals in history. The game had it all; superbly executed tries, titanic defensive stands, and a nail biting conclusion.
Wasps, who have lit up the Premiership with their electrifying brand of attacking rugby this season, were uncharacteristically inaccurate for much of the first half, chalking up a host of unforced errors as they struggled to retain possession. Exeter’s suffocating defence and solid execution in attack saw them take a 14-3 lead on 29 minutes; with their lineout and scrum functioning well while Wasps misfired, the sense that they were winning the arm-wrestle began to prevail. Crucially however, momentum began to swing Wasps’ way in the final play of the first half as some slick handling sent the indomitable Jimmy Gopperth in for a converted try. This was compounded by a second Wasps try three minutes into the second half, and suddenly the regular season champions’ attacking juggernaut purred into life; they were making line breaks, finding offloads and putting Exeter under tremendous pressure. It was only some desperate defending from the Chiefs which prevented Wasps from crossing the whitewash again. Gopperth stroked over another penalty and within the space of 13 minutes the complexion of the game had changed entirely; Wasps had turned the tide in their favour and were six points clear on the scoreboard with their tails up, looking much more recognisable as the side who had terrorised defences throughout the Premiership all year.
However this Exeter Chiefs side have a depth of self-belief which is almost unfathomable. With their outstanding fullback Phil Dollman forced from the field with a knee injury and Wasps very much in the ascendency, it would have been easy for the Chiefs to cave under the pressure in such a high profile match. Instead, they dug deep, and what followed was an all-out assault on Wasps as Exeter unleashed wave after wave of ferocious attack; at one stage completing a staggering 34 phases to go almost the length of the pitch, with Wasps scrambling to hold them to one kicked penalty to leave the game tantalisingly poised at 20-17 with 10 minutes remaining. Wasps’ defence has arguably been the weakest aspect of their game this season, however on Saturday, in the face of relentless attack, they never stopped tackling, never stopped tracking back and getting into formation, and never stopped competing. The defensive heart and discipline they displayed is worthy of huge commendation, and one could not help but feel sympathy for Nathan Hughes when he conceded the penalty which would ultimately lead to Exeter levelling the score with less than one minute remaining. Hughes was a colossus in both attack and defence on Saturday, particularly in the first half, and it felt cruel for him to be guilty of the infringement which would see his team’s lead erased in the dying seconds of the match, but there is no room for sentiment in the ruthless world of elite sporting competition. Exeter fly half and captain Gareth Steenson showed tremendous poise and calm to land the resultant kick, and extra time beckoned for only the second time in the history of the Premiership playoffs.
The 80 minutes of normal time on Saturday were played in warm conditions at a tremendous pace and with a gladiatorial level of physicality. Seeing two sets of exhausted players who had given their all for their cause attempting to rally themselves for another twenty minutes of battle was nothing short of inspirational; these teams began this journey last September and after 22 games of the regular season they finished equal on points atop the Premiership table, with Wasps taking the title by virtue of having won more games, but it was Exeter who scored the more bonus points. A further 80 minutes on head-to-head competition in the final still could not separate them, and it was at this point it became clear that both these sides were worthy champions; the tag of runners up would not do due justice to either team. As extra time played out, it was Exeter who looked the more threatening, at one point having the ball held up over the line before their upper hand at the scrum finally told and Wasps conceded another penalty, with the ever-cool Steenson stepping up to convert with two minutes remaining. Exeter then showed great calm and discipline to close the game out and win the first Premiership title in their history; the culmination of years of tireless work from Director of Rugby Rob Baxter and his team who have taken a small club from a small city in south west England and made them worthy champions. For Wasps, the disappointment will be huge, but they have firmly established themselves among English rugby’s elite and they will no doubt be back with a vengeance next season.
Other talking points from the pulsating final include the performance of Nathan Hughes at number 8 for Wasps; his relentless physicality will raise the question of whether he should have been chosen as the injury replacement for Billy Vunipola in the British and Irish Lions squad which left for New Zealand yesterday. Also very worthy of mention is the performance of the officiating crew; referee JP Doyle let the game flow and communicated well with the players and remained calm at some of the most intense periods in the match. When Exeter elected to take a scrum from a penalty 5 metres from the Wasps line at the end of a period of relentless pressure, Doyle refused to be rushed in setting the scrum, instead calmly taking the time to form the set piece correctly so as to avoid either side conceding a penalty at a pivotal point in the contest. Equally, TMO Rowan Kitt displayed great poise in deciding he could not award a try when Exeter bundled over the line in the second period of extra time. Level-headed officiating such as this facilitated a game which will live long in the memory because of the quality of rugby played by both sides, rather than a controversial refereeing decision.
The Aviva Premiership reminded us on Saturday why it is one of the most competitive and entertaining leagues in the world. This final was befitting of the thrilling season which preceded it; here’s hoping the 2017-2018 installment is just as compelling!
That’s all for now, please feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: @RugbyWrapUp, @MichaelHalsey24, @Matt_McCarthy00, @Junoir Blaber, @JWB_RWU, @Luke Bienstock, @Ronan Nelson, @MeetTheMatts, @Brian C Cole and @Declan Yeats.