The top two teams in the regular season: the teams that averaged the most tries and the most points between them, and potentially the two teams with the most aggressive and offensive rugby to offer in the premiership. This was one great final to the season.
Going into the match, bookies had the teams neck and neck, some favouring Exeter given they were in the final last year and so have experience, whilst others backed Wasps with their star studded players. Either way, whoever won was going to have a great story to tell. Exeter have only been in the premiership for seven years and have climbed to be one of the best teams, developing home grown West Country talent. Meanwhile, although in days gone by Wasps were a dominant force on the field, that was over ten years ago now. Since then, they have flirted with the idea of relegation, almost gone into liquidation, and relocated to Coventry. A Wasps victory would have definitely been a phoenix rising from the ashes.
With 80,000 fans in attendance, both sides were going to be feeling the pressure, and it showed in the first ten minutes. There was plenty of attacking rugby, dummy runs from Wasps and long floating passes out to the wings from the Chiefs. Most of this action however, was over the half-way line and no-one could gain an advantage. Cipriani, who had a quiet game given his normal flashy style, put an easy kick out on the full and this seemed to inspire Exeter to make a stronger attack. The Chiefs moved up the pitch and turned down kicking for the points and instead went to the corner, a clear statement of intent. However, this would be one that fell flat, as Wasps successfully defended the driving maul with ease and cleared their lines.
As the clock ticked on, both sides continued to stick to their game plan, with half breaks opening up for both teams and massive hits coming in all over the pitch. Then in the fourteenth minute, Jack Nowell- the only Lions player on the pitch- ran a perfect line off a lineout to break the deadlock. Steenson added the extras and the Chiefs had drawn first blood. However, Wasps were alert on the restart and quickly won a penalty without too much ease- exactly what the Chiefs didn’t want, and Jimmy Gopperth slotted it with ease to bring the Coventry side within four.
The two teams continued to lock horns, with both sides trying to run their game through their number 8’s, Thomas Waldrum for the Chiefs and Nathan Hughes for Wasps. However, everyone on the pitch had down their research and these two wrecking balls were, for the most part, effectively shut down. Then with some beautiful offloading and a few missed tackles, Phil Dollman battled his way over the line to get Exeter’s second of the day.
Things were looking pretty great for Exeter as the half time whistle approached. With just 20 seconds left and the ball on the halfway mark for a lineout I decided to get in the beer queue early. Just as I was heading out of the stadium I heard a huge cheer and turned to see some beautiful offloading and slicing runs which resulted in Gopperth crossing over the whitewash to bring Wasps right back into the game. Half time, Exeter 14 – 10 Wasps.
The second half started in much a similar fashion as the first. Just five minutes in, Daly crossed the line once again to give Wasps the lead for the first time that afternoon. Gopperth hit the post but 40,000 Wasps fans let out a sigh of relief as it bounced through the posts rather than the other side.
Gopperth added another three to extend Wasps’ lead to six, almost getting out of sight. The Chiefs were now facing their 7th loss at Twickenham if they didn’t pull something out of the bag, and they certainly tried. With run after run and pick and go after pick and go, they made slow progress into the Wasps’ twenty-two. Despite the Chiefs’ best efforts, the Wasps’ defence held firm, and when given the chance to kick the points, the Chiefs continued their fruitless attempts to cross the line. It wasn’t that their attack was lacklustre, it was just a high quality offence meeting its match. Eventually, with just a minute to spare, Steenson chose to shoot for goal asP Doyle awarded his side a penalty. With the cool composure at the tee that he had had all day, he cut the uprights in half and sent the game to extra time.
All 30 players on the pitch looked absolutely knackered by this point, and they would have to keep it up for another twenty minutes. Chiefs definitely had the run of play for the first of these extra ten minutes. Jack Nowell and Thomas Waldrom were all over the pitch. It seemed that from sheer force of will they would be able to break the Wasps’ defence and bring the cup to Devon for the first time ever. That isn’t to say that Wasps didn’t have any offence: they continued to test the Chiefs as they made the half breaks that they had been doing all game. However, the clock hit zero and we were still all tied at 20-20.
The Chiefs continued to have the pressure in the second half of extra time and were camped out in the Wasps’ 22 for the majority of the time. With just three minutes on the clock, the Chiefs were held up on the line and won themselves a five metre attacking scrum. Considering their scrum had been dominant all day, it came as little surprise to the crowd as JP Doyle awarded the men from the South West a penalty. Steenson was perfect as ever and put Exeter up 23-20. They then protected the ball from the restart and ran the clock down to bring the title to the South West for the very first time! The Chiefs chant was the only song being sung following the final whistle.
What Exeter achieved here was an incredible feat, just seven years ago they were playing to gain promotion to the premiership for the first time in club history. Now they are champions, surpassing the likes of Saracens, Wasps and all the other big shots on the way. Where do they go from here? Well obviously, they need to cement themselves as one of the greats and repeat this year’s title success. It won’t be easy; Saracens are still looking strong as ever and Wasps are sure to be back with a vengeance.