Exeter chase second taste of Heineken after ending Wasps' hopes
Wasps 24 Exeter 37
Unlike a certain well-known wood preservation product, Exeter's current brand of rugby is precisely the opposite of what it says on the tin. They prefer playing on a fast track rather than in a swamp, would far rather keep the ball in hand than kick the leather off it, and if this new-fangled way of playing sits uneasily with the age-old traditions of the union game down Devon way, Rob Baxter's men could not give a tinker's. As they demonstrated yesterday, there is more to life than an 80-minute scrummage, interrupted by the occasional maul.
"People should know by now that this team is well set up for the last few weeks of a season, provided the weather is dry," said Baxter, the long-serving forward whose career as head coach continues to go from strength to Herculean strength. "This was a highly physical contest, largely because of our endeavour to carry the ball and keep playing. When we did that, we were pretty much in control of everything. It was only when we kicked the ball to the opposition that we allowed them to bring their attacking game into play."
Talk of this kind would have been considered seditious during Baxter's playing days, when his Trojan-like work at the heart of Exeter pack was more sensed than seen, thanks to the tight-knit, mud-coated style of rugby then favoured by the troglodytes from the far-flung reaches of the West Country. Indeed, some of the more venerable Exeter followers would not understand a word of it even now.
But Exeter have been building this smart, highly effective game of theirs for a couple of seasons now, and as the younger set – bright sparks such as the wing Jack Nowell and the playmaker Henry Slade – move from academy rugby to the real stuff, the momentum will quicken. Yesterday, they ended Wasps' hopes of qualifying for next season's Heineken Cup by splitting them in two with a flurry of show-and-go scampers, smart inside passes and hard, direct running from all areas. It was a joy to watch.
Wasps played their part in Exeter's victory by missing tackles by the dozen. This defensive fragility left their rugby director, David Young, in something of a grump – "A lot of senior players fell off a lot of tackles you'd expect them to make," muttered the three-tour Lions prop – but with his club's European prospects dead and buried, he was also in philosophical mood.
"This time last year we were fighting to stay in the Premiership, so we've made some strides," he said. "We started the season slowly, had a purple patch in the middle and are finishing dreadfully, but while it would have been great to make it into the top six, it would also have worried me. I've been accused of dampening expectations but I believe I've been justified in doing so. We're not yet strong enough to compete with the top-four teams in this league, and certainly not strong enough to take on some of the top teams in Europe."
There were many who wondered whether Exeter had bitten off more than they could chew by qualifying for this season's Heineken Cup, especially when they were drawn in a pool with Leinster, the reigning champions, and Clermont Auvergne, everyone's title favourites. The assumption was that the West Countrymen would lose all their pool games, pick up injuries by the hospital-load and see their domestic campaign compromised.
So much for assumption. They beat the Scarlets home and away in the European round-robin phase, went within a gnat's crotchet of prevailing over Leinster in Dublin and are now finishing like a train in the Premiership. If they see off Gloucester on home soil in the final round of league games in 12 days' time, they will secure Heineken qualification once again. And they will deserve it, too.
By the end of the first quarter yesterday, they had done a job on Wasps. Following an early exchange of penalties, hooker Jack Yeandle claimed a close-range touchdown after a long-legged gallop down the right by lock Damian Welch, who would go on to indulge himself with further forays into the wide open prairies. Six minutes later, Nowell took a clever pass from the outstanding James Scaysbrook and notched a second try. The Londoners were all over the place and stayed that way, despite a typically fleet-footed response from the wing Christian Wade on the half-hour.
Welch sealed it at the start of the second half, running in from many a mile after picking a line between two-thirds of the Wasps front row and then rounding the rather quicker Elliot Daly with disconcerting ease. Wasps just about found a way of staying within a couple of scores, but when Exeter scrum-half Haydn Thomas slipped over close to a ruck following good work by Gareth Steenson, the game had about as much life left in it as the Pythons' parrot. Tom Varndell escaped in the final seconds to score on his 100th appearance in Wasps colours, but there was nothing remotely relevant about it.
"Heineken Cup qualification does not mean anything crucial to our club in financial terms but it's important to the players and it's a wonderful adventure – one our supporters can share with us," Baxter said. "For that reason, I hope we complete the job. But equally, I'm just a little disappointed that we'll finish short of a play-off place in the league. One more Premiership win would have made it interesting, because we're finishing so strongly."
The coach may be disappointed, but there are a good number of Premiership bosses who would happily swap places with him. Exeter are in profit off the field – how's that for a novelty? – and doing many good things on it. All they need going forward is a change of climate in the West Country. More sun and less rain would do nicely.
Scorers: Wasps: Tries Wade, Southwell, Varndell; Conversions Stephen Jones 2, T Bell; Penalty Daly. Exeter: Tries Yeandle, Nowell, Welch, Thomas; Conversions Steenson 4; Penalties Steenson 3.
Wasps: E Daly; C Wade, A Masi (H Southwell 42), C Bell (capt), T Varndell; Stephen Jones (T Bell 60), J Simpson (C Davies 70); S Taulafo (S McIntyre 54), R Thomas (T Lindsay 63), P Swainston (W Taylor 42), J Launchbury, T Palmer (M Wentzel 63), A Johnson, J Haskell (Sam Jones 60-67 and 70-74), V Vunipola.
Exeter: L Arscott (H Slade 60-63 and 78); J Nowell, P Dollman, J Shoemark (I Whitten 60), M Jess; G Steenson, H Thomas (W Chudley 63); B Sturgess (C Rimmer 74), J Yeandle (C Whitehead 63), H Tui (C Mitchell 63), D Mumm, D Welch, B White (D Ewers 57), J Scaysbrook (A Muldowney 74), R Baxter (capt).
Referee: W Barnes (London).
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