Wasps 34 Chiefs 5
Exeter Chiefs 5
Mark Stevens at the Ricoh Arena
They say revenge is a dish best served cold.
For Wasps, the heartache of October’s Gallagher Premiership Final defeat to the Exeter Chiefs will linger for some time. However, Lee Blackett’s side claimed a modicum of comfort in this latest match-up, dispatching last season’s double winners to a first defeat of the campaign.
Up until this point, Rob Baxter’s Chiefs have been near pitch perfect, claiming bonus point victories in all five of their fixtures played so far.
Sadly for them, the New Year did not begin quite in the same vein as they were ougtunned in every department by a Wasps outfit, who claimed five tries in total. James Gaskell bagged a brace, as did replacement Simon McIntyre, whilst former All Black, Lima Sopoaga, did the remainder of the damage with a fifth try and a further nine points with the boot.
It underlined a tough day at the office for the Devonians, whose sole crumb of comfort on the day came courtesy of a try for flanker Richard Capstick.
Having ended a highly successful 2020 with victory at home to Gloucester, Baxter’s side entered into the New Year with a fresh feel about it. Injuries to Stuart Hogg and Jannes Kirsten meant they missed out, as did a number of others due to the regulations about the international rest break for those involved in the recent Autumn Nations Cup.
Into the side came Messrs Hepburn, Yeandle, Street, Witty, Armand and Capstick up front, whilst Hogg’s absence meant Tom O’Flaherty shunted to the anchor role; Ian Whitten reverted to the wing and Tom Hendrickson came into the midfield alongside Ollie Devoto. The only other change saw a first start of the season for Sam Hidalgo-Clyne at scrum-half.
Wasps, fresh from a hard fought win on the road at Sale Sharks last weekend, also made a plethora of changes, nine to be precise, including a return to the fold for their Exeter-born captain Joe Launchbury, as well as starts for England Internationals Kieran Brookes, Jack Willis and Dan Robson.
On a freezing cold afternoon in the Midlands, it was the visitors who edged the early exchanges. A penalty to the corner from Joe Simmonds gave the Chiefs their first opportunity as Don Armand soared highest from the line-out, but as his fellow forwards looked to drive in around him, referee Ian Tempest adjudged Wasps had done just enough to hold their rivals at bay, producing a solid defensive set that left the ‘Men in White’ just shy of the try line.
The home side made the most of Exeter’s missed opportunity to then set up camp inside the Chiefs 22. Olly Woodburn’s failure to roll away from the tackle allowed Jacob Umaga to pin Wasps within five metres of the Chiefs line with the resultant penalty. Initially, the visitors did well to repel the succession of attacking waves, but when the home side threatened again, it was Gaskell who was deemed to have burrowed lowest to ground the ball.
Moments later and Wasps were back in a similar position, Dave Ewers harshly falling foul of Tempest for a block in midfield. This time, however, the Chiefs were able to hold firm under intense pressure, Woodburn atoning for his earlier error by reading Robson’s clever grubber kick in behind.
With little to choose between either side at this stage, the battle up front was particularly physical, it was the Chiefs who were next to show. A soft penalty coughed up by Launchbury allowed Joe Simmonds to drill the penalty back into the corner once more, setting up a golden opportunity for the visitors to strike.
Again, the Chiefs were unable to capitalise as Wasps cleverly defended their line as though their very existence depended on it.
The missed oppportunity was summing up the frustrations of the Chiefs, who despite offering plenty of huff and puff in attack, were unable to find the forceful kind of front they had shown so often this season.
At the other end, Umaga’s crafty break through the middle almost sent Paolo Odogwu over for a second try. Thankfully, great defensive work from Woodburn saved the day for the Chiefs who, just before the interval, leaked a soft penalty that Sopoaga landed to give his side a eight-point buffer at the turn.
HALF TIME WASPS 8 EXETER CHIEFS 0
Although it had been a somewhat frustrating first half for the Chiefs, they re-emerged for the second period clearly intent on hauling themselves back into contention. Some decisive early carries outlined their vision, before an arcing, snipe from Joe Simmonds saw him create the opening for Capstick to flourish.
Still with plenty to do, the former England Under-20s international galloped clear of the home cover, even hitch-kicking his way through one tackle, before rounding Sopoaga to score in the left-hand corner.
It was just what the Chiefs craved, even if Simmonds was unable to convert, and it was hoped it would act as the launchpad for them to really kick-on in the second half.
Capstick’s effort, however, proved a momentary minute of magic as no sooner had they got close, Wasps struck with a second try of the game for Gaskell, who was able to canter in under the posts following good approach work involving Robson, Umaga and replacement Jeff Toomaga-Allen.
Sopoaga added the extras to that score, but could not convert his own try which arrived just before the hour mark. The full-back was given the simplest of finishes after a slick attack off a line-out on the left touchline was worked back across field to Josh Bassett, who had meandered his way into the midfield to provide an extra body, before shipping a brilliant off-load to his onrushing team-mate.
Now 15 points adrift, things would get no easier for the Chiefs who, having twice survived potential knock-on calls against them, saw Capstick yellow-carded for taking out Robson without the ball.
It took Wasps just three minutes to make their numerical advantage pay, the home side grabbing the all-important bonus point when replacement prop McIntyre was able to rumble over for the converted score.
With the game effectively over as a contest, Baxter took the opportunity to run his bench, handing a Premiership debut to back-row forward Rus Tuima, whilst Josh Hodge almost marked his introduction with a try, the fleet-footed full-back producing a sublime counter attack down the right, only to be felled by a last-gasp tap tackle from Will Porter.
Wasps, though, were far from finished and having seen Bassett almost score from a clever cross-field kick by Jimmy Gopperth, they used the last play of the match to send McIntyre over for his second of the game, again converted by Sopoaga, to seal a thoroughly miserable start to 2021 for the Chiefs.
Baxter’s side now have a week to regroup before they play host to near neighbours Bristol Bears in another mouth-watering match-up between the division’s top two sides.
Wasps: L Sopoaga; P Odogwu, J du Jongh, M Le Bourgeois (J Gopperth 74), J Bassett; J Umaga (C Atkinson 70), D Robson (W Porter 70); T West (S McIntyre 60), T Cruse (T Taylor 53), K Brookes (J Toomaga-Allen 46); J Launchbury (capt), W Rowlands; J Gaskell (B Morris 53), J Willis (T Young h/t), T Willis.
Tries - Gaskell (2), Sopaga, McIntyre (2); Conversions - Sopaga (3); Penalty - Sopoaga
Chiefs: T O’Flaherty (J Hodge 70); O Woodburn, T Hendrickson, O Devoto, I Whitten; J Simmonds (H Skinner 70), S Hidalgo-Clyne (J Maunder 53); A Hepburn (J Kenny 60), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 60), M Street (T Francis 45); W Witty (T Price 53), D Armand; D Ewers, R Capstick, S Simmonds (R Tuima 70).
Try - Capstick
Yellow Card: Capstick
Referee: I Tempest