NEW YORK, NY – After two thrilling semifinals in which both teams clinched victory from the jaws of defeat in the final minutes, Exeter Chiefs and Wasps will go head to head this Saturday in the Aviva Premiership playoff final. With Wasps having won the Premiership in the regular season while Exeter finished a very close second, no one can deny that these two teams very much deserve to be competing for the championship (written through gritted teeth by a Saracens fan), but what makes this encounter so fascinating to me is the contrasting styles of these two teams, and how they’ve come to be the last two standing this season.
Wasps are a stalwart of English rugby’s top flight, with a rich history of success and star-studded playing squads. In their trophy cabinet sit six Premiership titles, two European Cups and three Anglo-Welsh Cups. Their playing alumni include (to name only a few) legendary Australian flanker George Smith, 2003 World Cup winning Englishmen Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson and Josh Lewsey, and French pair Serge Betsen and Raphael Ibanez, who were capped 63 and 98 times respectively by their country. The club has had its struggles in the not-so-distant past, avoiding relegation from the Premiership by just one spot during an injury-ravaged 2011 season and almost going into receivership when a takeover deal collapsed at the 11th hour in 2012, however they have recovered from those turbulent years to be a potent force in the Premiership of late. This season they moved into first place in the Premiership on Christmas Eve, and held on to the lead for the rest of the campaign, all the while playing scintillating attacking rugby. They have splashed the cash to pack their team with current internationals including the England trio of Joe Launchbury, James Haskell and Nathan Hughes in the forwards, while their back line contains the firepower of Jimmy Gopperth, Kurtley Beale, Elliott Daly, Christian Wade, Willie Le Roux and the mercurial Danny Cipriani. This season they scored a Premiership-record 89 tries, with Wade equaling the individual record of 17, on their way to amassing an average of 32 points per game. Wasps play the type of flowing, attacking rugby which would bring any fan to their feet, and when they’re at their ruthless best, few teams can handle them.
Exeter are a different story. Although founded in 1871, they did not win promotion to the Premiership until 2009, but since then, they have steadily built towards consistent success. Rather than spending big to sign household names, Director of Rugby Rob Baxter has managed to spot the talent in players who were on the fringes at other clubs such as Olly Woodburn, Geoff Parling and Thomas Waldrom, and turn them into some of the best players in the Premiership. This, combined with homegrown talent from their academy including Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie, and the nurturing of younger players such as Jack Nowell, has lead to Exeter establishing themselves as a team which thrives on its own culture and cohesion. They were written off by many observers after a poor start to this season, however they ended the season with a 15 game unbeaten streak, and a try bonus point in each of their last 8 matches. While they may not have the international superstars to match Wasps on paper, Exeter are a team which is greater than the sum of its parts, and which attacks relentlessly with iron-clad self belief. In Baxter, Ali Hepher and Rob Hunter they have one of the most intelligent coaching teams in the league, who have been able to create a Premiership powerhouse with minimal financial aid. They were beaten in last year’s final, and one wonders whether the lessons learned on that occasion will have steeled them to go all the way on Saturday.
This match is almost too close to call. Wasps are a stunning attacking side, but their defence is porous; while they scored more points than any other team in the regular season, they had just the seventh best defensive record. Their set piece is also not the strongest, in contrast to Exeter who have a fearsome scrum and an incredibly well drilled lineout; if Exeter can starve the Wasps back line of front foot ball, they will stifle their attack and create opportunities to impose themselves on the game. Exeter make very few mistakes, but they lack world class, game-breaking talent, which Wasps have in abundance. If last weekend’s semifinals are any guide, this game will be tight, and could hinge on a moment of magic; if that is to be the case, Wasps seem like the more likely victors.
Exeter win by 3 points… I think Wasps’ defensive frailties will finally catch up to them, and I believe Exeter are the more complete all-round team. Either way, here’s hoping both sides have saved their best for last to deliver the classic final which this electric season of Premiership rugby so richly deserves.
London-born Michael Halsey currently plays for New York Rugby Club, having previously played in England, Australia and Austria. Having always harboured dreams of being a sports journalist, joining the RWU team has finally given him a outlet through which to share his love of the game