Chiefs crowned Champions
Exeter Chiefs 23
Mark Stevens at Twickenham
Seven years ago this week Exeter Rugby Club achieved - at that time - their finest hour, defeating rivals Bristol to book their place amongst the great and the good of English Rugby.
Today, a new and amazing chapter was written into the history of the Chiefs as Rob Baxter’s side triumphed at Twickenham, lifting the Aviva Premiership crown for the first time in the club’s history.
Since that wet and wild night at the Memorial Stadium there have been many happy memories, but this has eclipsed them all.
The Chiefs are Champions!
Gareth Steenson’s extra time penalty, just minutes from time in a pulsating encounter, ensured a 23-20 victory for Devon’s finest over rivals Wasps.
In a game which ebbed and flowed throughout, the Chiefs stole an early march thanks to a converted Jack Nowell try and then another from full-back Phil Dollman.
Wasps, though, were always in contention and having gone in at half time just four points adrift courtesy of Jimmy Gopperth, they raced in front in the second half as Elliot Daly claimed a converted score before Gopperth added further points.
Steenson rallied with two late penalties, the last of which came in the final minute of normal time, before he slotted a stunning winner deep into extra time.
The Irishman’s kick capped what was a memorable day for thousands of Exeter fans, players, coaches and staff alike.
After seeing off defending champions Saracens the week previous in the semi-finals, Baxter made just one change in personnel for Exeter’s second successive appearance in English rugby’s showpiece event.
That switch saw Olly Woodburn return from a hamstring injury on the left wing with James Short the unlucky man to miss out. Otherwise, it was as you were for the Chiefs on a scorching day in the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, Wasps - who had overcome Leicester Tigers in the other last four encounter - were fully loaded and were able to parade a full-strength outfit as they looked to lift their first Premiership crown since 2005.
With personnel in place and a capacity crowd in attendance, the early skirmishes were largely restricted to the forwards, who were willing to slug it out like two prize fighters.
Up front, the Chiefs seemed to have the edge as they milked a couple of early penalties, one of which they declined to kick at goal, instead opting for greater reward in the left corner.
Unlike seven days earlier when they propelled Sarries back over the line at a rate of knots, this time Wasps had done their homework, repelling the threat with a stubborn eight-man resistance.
At the other end, the attacking threat of Wasps was clearly evident with some heavy carrying into the Exeter half from the likes of England trio James Haskell, Joe Launchbury and Nathan Hughes.
Thankfully, Baxter’s side were proving a formidable force in defence, putting up a wall of white shirts that Wasps simply could not penetrate.
Turning defence into attack, the Chiefs were afforded another scrum penalty and again that opted to go for the corner. Working the ball off the top of the set-piece, Stuart Townsend fed England star Nowell, who had come off his wing to pick a lovely line through the heart of the Wasps defence to score in the corner.
As Twickenham erupted into a wall of noise, Steenson stepped forward just moments later to plunder a sublime touchline conversion to put his side seven points in front.
Wasps, however, countered almost immediately, making the most of some sloppy Exeter work at the restart to set up camp deep behind enemy lines. Although the first few offensive waves didn’t go anywhere, when they tried again, referee JP Doyle spotted an Exeter defender offside in front of his own posts, allowing Gopperth the chance to slot a simple penalty.
With little to choose between either side, the frenetic action continued apace as the half carried on in the searing overhead sunshine.
It was, though, the Chiefs who were next to score, claiming a second try on 28 minutes. Using the foundations of a solid scrum on the right flank, they worked the ball back inside to the charging Devoto, who stole a march on his opposite numbers. He drove hard and straight towards the Wasps line, before offering a simple offload to Dollman, who added another highlight to his magical week - which included a first-ever call-up to the Welsh squad - by dotting down for the score, again converted by Steenson.
It was no more than the Chiefs deserved for their sterling efforts but, just as half time approached, they allowed themselves to shut off momentarily and Wasps stung them in a flash as Gopperth latched onto a pass from Dan Robson to glide in under the Exeter posts for the score, which he was also able to convert with the last kick of the half.
HALF TIME WASPS 10 EXETER CHIEFS 14
Gopperth’s touchdown not only gave Wasps a much-needed lifeline back into the contest, but it deliver a sucker punch to the Chiefs, who up until that point had been ruling the roost in most areas.
On the resumption, the Devonians started brightly enough, setting up camp deep in the Wasps half. However, they could not make early pressure tell and they were again bitten by their rivals on a deadly counter-attack.
Turning possession over, Wasps raided down the right releasing the dangerous Christian Wade, whose chip over the top saw him in a foot race to the line with Woodburn. Both men matched each other stride for stride, but as the ball flipped up, it fell invitingly into the arms of Daly, who scored with little resistance.
Gopperth landed the conversion, via the post, then added a second successful penalty as Wasps stretched their lead to six points just before the hour mark.
Baxter turned to his bench, bringing on a flurry of fresh faces in a bid to haul themselves back into the match. A new front-row was added to the mix, as was the imposing frame of Aussie powerhouse Mitch Lees into the second row.
The new-look artillery certainly helped to give some go forward to the Chiefs, but they were struggling to find the key breakthrough. That was until a huge carry from Parling saw him felled midway, the results of which saw at least two Wasps defender enter from the side.
It allowed Steenson to step forward and drill a lengthy penalty between the sticks to draw the Chiefs to within three points.
Now with the bit between their teeth, the Chiefs went for the Wasps jugular. A huge swell of pressure saw them push and pull their rivals in every direction. Nowell went close to claiming his second of the afternoon, before Exeter won a penalty bang in front of the posts.
Again they declined the kick to draw level, opting for a five-metre scrum. It was a bold and gutsy call in such circumstances. Sadly, the tactic back-fired on the Chiefs, who despite two decent attempts, coughed up possession at the key moment.
This is Exeter, however, and it’s never over until it’s over. With the game heading into the final minute, they countered once more. Sam Simmonds gave them the necessary go forward with a storming break, after which his colleagues took up the mantle. As they slowly edged their way down the famous Twickenham turf, Wasps No.8 Nathan Hughes refused to release at the tackle, gifting the Chiefs a final chance.
This time there was to be no set-piece, the order from the sideline this time was to go posts. Steenson stepped forward, stroking over a long-range penalty to level things and send the game into extra time.
With little to separate the two sides all season, it was perhaps fitting that the final would serve up such a compelling conclusion. Now with a further 20 minutes to play in the baking heat, it was ultimately be who would buckle first.
The early exchanges of added on time were dominated by the Chiefs, before Wasps threatened at the other end when Cipriani delivered a decent penalty kick to the corner. Wasps looked to attack from the line-out, but some superb disruption from Armand at the front saw the chance come and go.
Bruised, battered and exhausted, both sides drew breath during the break of extra time. Now just 10 minutes from glory, it was the Chiefs who started to up the tempo. Piling forward, using the pack as a battering ram, they thought they were over when Simmonds burrowed low to the line
Doyle did his utmost to check the grounding, even hitting the deck himself, but following numerous checks with TMO Rowan Kitt, no score was awarded and the Chiefs had to settle for a five-metre scrum.
Tension inside all four corners had now reached breaking point. The first scrum ended in a mass heap, the next though saw Wasps crumple and Doyle shot his left arm into the air.
It was the chance the Chiefs craved. In this situation, however, there is no better sharp-shooter than Steenson, who stepped forward to deliver the perfect kick on the big stage.
Immediately the party started all around Twickenham. If the noise from Sandy Park a week ago raised the decibel levels, then this was off the scale!
The Chiefs were in Dreamland, now the party can really start!
Wasps: W Le Roux, C Wade, E Daly, J Gopperth, J Bassett; D Cipriani, D Robson (J Simpson 58); M Mullan (S McIntyre 58), T Taylor (A Johnson 64), P Swainston (M Moore 27, M Mullan 83); J Launchbury (capt), M Symons (K Myall 58); J Haskell, T Young (G Thompson 64), N Hughes (G Thompson 18-26). Replacements (not used): A Leiua, F Halai.
Tries - Gopperth, Daly; Conversions - Gopperth (2); Penalties - Gopperth (2)
Chiefs: P Dollman (H Slade 46); J Nowell, I Whitten, O Devoto (M Campagnaro 77), O Woodburn; G Steenson (capt), S Townsend (W Chudley 50); B Moon (C Rimmer 50), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 50), H Williams (T Francis 50); D Dennis (S Simmonds 60), G Parling; K Horstmann (M Lees 53), D Armand, T Waldrom.
Tries - Nowell, Dollman; Conversions - Steenson (2); Penalties - Steenson (2)
Referee: JP Doyle