Exeter Chiefs confirmed their rise to the top of the club game as the European champions added the Premiership title to their collection in a 19-13 victory over Wasps to complete an all-conquering campaign.
A full 371 days after the 2019/20 season began, and more than four months after the curtain was due to come down, the Premiership showcase finally took place at an empty, rain-sodden Twickenham. An occasion that is used to basking in the June sunshine instead experienced the very worst of the autumnal conditions, which played a huge impact on a cagey and error-strewn final, though for both sides to conjure up 32 points between them stood out as an achievement in itself.
After last weekend’s European triumph, Henry Slade admitted Exeter’s success this season went a long way to making up for the disappointments that the club have experienced along the way - the three painful final defeats here against Saracens - as well as the Rugby World Cup final loss with England that remains in the not-too-distant memory.
But it was appropriate that one of English rugby’s finest talents currently in the game crossed the whitewash first, with Slade showing his class to score in what proved a man-of-the-match performance.
If Slade is the now though, then at least this final displayed a glimpse of the future too. Young Wasps fly-half Jacob Umaga has already had a taste of the England set-up under Eddie Jones, and he helped Wasps to reply immediately with a well-taken try to re-take the lead after an early Jimmy Gopperth penalty had opened the scores.
Exeter fly-half Joe Simmonds is perhaps the name closest to rivalling Umaga as the next fly-half in the England squad - not least because of George Ford’s current injury - and he pulled Exeter level before giving them a three-point lead on the stroke of half-time, with the Chiefs captain exchanging penalty efforts with Gopperth.
Gopperth eradicated the deficit heading into the final quarter, but Exeter would not be denied as Simmonds kicked the crucial penalty 14 minutes from time, and though they had to withstand a major scare minutes from full-time, their composure saw them home along with a fourth penalty effort to secure their second Premiership success in four seasons and cement their status as the dominant club in European rugby right now.
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You didn’t need to be inside Twickenham at the start of the afternoon to see a sign of the times. An empty A316, not a single programme seller or beer vendor, and a steady flow of traffic from Twickenham Stadium where normally 82,000 descend on the home of rugby union provided a stark reminder of why this match is being played so late in the year.
For the final time this season, Exeter and Wasps paused to remember the victims of the coronavirus pandemic that has also forced this sport onto its knees. Rugby union is among the worst to be hit by the pandemic in terms of financial losses, though the sport is not exactly faultless given the events this week that has resulted in Sunday’s international between England and the Barbarians here being cancelled at short notice.
But after finishing the regular season first and second, and seeing reigning champions Saracens correctly demoted to the second tier next season for their salary transgressions, few could argue that this wasn’t the correct final. Wasps very nearly didn’t make it, with a Covid-19 outbreak seeing first-team regulars Simon McIntyre, Kieran Brookes and Brad Shields ruled out along with young prospect Alfie Barbeary, but the fact they were at Twickenham at all is testament to the work that clubs have put in health-wise to complete the 2019/20 campaign.
Wasps’ resurrection this season has coincided with a return of Gopperth as a fully-fit regular, and it was no surprise to see the New Zealander turning his back on his first penalty effort in the knowledge that it was dissecting the uprights to put the underdogs in front 13 minutes in. However, it would be Exeter who would cross the whitewash first after what was a cagey first 18 minutes.
Exeter have no fewer than four internationals in their star-studded back line, a number that could grow if captain Joe Simmonds makes his way off the England radar and into the squad any time soon, so it was no surprise to see one of their twinkle-toed backs making the early difference. Wing Jack Nowell displayed his versatility to slip into first receiver, shipping the ball on right to Slade, and the centre spotted a mismatch against two of the Wasps forwards in Tom Willis and Tom West to ease his way through on an arcing run, with a side-step putting paid to last-man Matteo Minozzi with ease.
It could easily have been a moment that broke the Wasps resolve, but instead they rallied with a try as good as that of the European champions. Umaga and Dan Robson targeted Exeter wing Olly Woodburn aerially throughout the first half, so it was no surprise to see their first try-scoring opportunity present itself down the left wing. As Robson carried from the base, the distraction of Zach Kibirige on his outside shoulder just held the defence long enough for a miss-pass to release Umaga, and he went all the way to put Wasps back in front, with Gopperth’s conversion securing a 10-7 lead.
Simmonds soon pulled the scores level with his first penalty of the evening, and when the clouds above south-west London opened up to send a deluge of rain down, scoring looked the last thing on anyone’s mind as simply holding onto the ball became a challenge in itself.
Had it been a standard Saturday match at your local club, the teams would have been heading for the sheds, match abandoned, Twickenham flooded. But a year and six days after it all started, not even a monsoon was going to prevent the Premiership from ending today.
Exeter kept the pressure on and a low kick from Nowell forced a lineout deep in Wasps territory, which produced a second penalty for Simmonds when West was trapped on the wrong side, and the fly-half - the youngest man to captain a final side, successfully kicked it to secure a narrow lead at the break.
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If the players had hoped to see the rain disappear once they returned to the field, they were left wanting. Those few in attendance retreated deep into the Twickenham stands to find shelter, and the rain very much dictated the second half as neither side could really muster a chance through the third quarter. Such was the stop-start nature of the game, the two assistant referees could be seen doing shuttle runs to keep warm when the ball was dead.
The replacements would no doubt have a major impact in deciding the outcome of such a tight affair, and Wasps blinked first as Lee Blackett sent on former All Black Lima Sopoaga on for Matteo Minozzi, a fly-half playing at full-back. He immediately changed the balance of the game, breaking with his first touch to release Josh Bassett, before a moment of magic saw him soar through the air after leaping from some three metres off the field to keep Slade’s touch-finder in play and send his own effort downfield with a kick-chase to follow. Wasps attacked, fellow replacement Ben Harris nailed Stuart Hogg with a shuddering tackle and the penalty eventually came, allowing Gopperth to level at 13-13.
Rob Baxter countered. On came the front-row reinforcements, with Ben Moon, Jack Yeandle and Tomas Francis dispatched to secure victory, Baxter’s ace in the hole that he has deployed so often. Would it work this time though?
It looked likely when Exeter won another penalty. Jack Willis could well receive a fresh England call-up more than two years after his first on Monday when their Six Nations quad is announced, but you would not blame him if he is still wondering what could have been. The talented flanker, moved to the blindside after excelling at openside this season, was harshly penalised for hands in the ruck and Simmons duly accepted the three points. It proved crucial.
Wasps had one last attack, and came within a whisker of scoring what would have been a game-changing try three minutes from time when Exeter were forced to collapse a driving maul that was destined for the try line. The penalty went to touch instead of the posts, Wasps fluffed their lineout, and Exeter’s replacement front row rose to the fore to win four penalties in the final two minutes to give Simmonds one last chance at goal and begin the big celebrations.
Exeter: Stuart Hogg; Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Olly Woodburn; Joe Simmonds, Jack Maunder (Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 61); Alec Hepburn (Ben Moon, 61), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Jack Yeandle, 61), Harry Williams (Tomas Francis, 61), Sam Skinner, Jonny Hill (Jonny Gray), Dave Ewers, Jannes Kirsten, Sam Simmonds.
Replacements not used: Jacques Vermeulen, Gareth Steenson, Ian Whitten.
Wasps: Matteo Minozzi (Lima Sopoaga); Zach Kibirige, Juan de Jongh (Michael Le Bourgeois, 74), Jimmy Gopperth, Josh Bassett; Jacob Umaga, Dan Robson; Tom West (Ben Harris), Tommy Taylor (Gabriel Oghre, 50), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (Biyi Alo, 66); Joe Launchbury, Will Rowlands, Jack Willis, Thomas Young, Tom Willis (James Gaskell, 46).
Replacements not used: Ben Morris, Ben Vellacott.
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