Exeter Chiefs grind out win over Wasps to reach first Premiership final
Exeter reach a remarkable club landmark with 34-23 win over Wasps, clinching victory with penalty try in the closing moments Exeter continued this sporting year's underdog theme by reaching the Premiership final for the first time, six years after winning promotion from the Championship.
Had bookmakers six years ago been offering odds on the Chiefs winning the title this month, they would probably have been longer than 5,000-1. Exeter left it late to seal victory, awarded their second penalty try 30 seconds from the end after Wasps disrupted a scrum that was slewing its way to their line, but they fully merited their success which was based on organisation and pragmatism.
Wasps were more excitable, but unable to seize the moment when they were attacking four minutes from the end and the top two sides in the table will contest next Saturday's final. Wasps had lost on their six other Premiership visits to Exeter and suffered a chastening 24-3 defeat here at the start of the month.
The Chiefs played into the wind that day but here were given first use of it – this may have been the middle of May but the weather suited November: grey, dank and very wet. Exeter were making their first appearance in the play-offs against a side that had won four Premiership titles, but it was the Chiefs who from the start had a seasoned feel while Wasps were at times naive, too anxious to live up to their free-running reputation and making costly mistakes.
They would have gone into the interval ahead despite facing the wind first but for a combination of mistakes six minutes from the end. First they lost the ball near Exeter's 22 after a telling break by Dan Robson and then, after Henry Slade had kicked it 60 metres downfield, Charles Piutau was caught in possession near his own line having wasted the chance to earn a drop-out. When the ball fell loose, the No8 Don Armand picked up to wrong-foot Matt Mullan and score, but the referee Greg Garner suspected Jack Nowell may have knocked on after Piutau and a video replay proved him right.
When Mullan was penalised at the subsequent scrum for taking it down, much to his dismay, Exeter kicked to touch to begin a sequence that ended with the home side being awarded a penalty try. They won the lineout and drove a maul which Wasps collapsed. The process was repeated twice before Garner lost patience and awarded a penalty try before doubling the punishment by showing a yellow card to the hooker Carlo Festuccia whose attempt to collapse the maul before it reached the Wasps' line failed.
Festuccia had given Wasps the lead on 17 minutes when he finished off a driving maul from a lineout to reply to two Gareth Steenson penalties. The way Exeter started the game, moving the ball from a lineout and patiently taking play through 12 phases before winning a penalty – when Nathan Hughes tapped back the ball after making a tackle before getting back on to his feet – contrasted with the chancier approach of Wasps in difficult conditions.
Wasps presented a far greater threat than they had at the start of the month, which was not difficult, but in many ways they were as vulnerable. Exeter were more efficient when it came to the bits and pieces and the staples: restarts, lineouts and keeping hold of the ball for example, and, though their kicking game deteriorated in the second period when they focused on protecting their lead, they looked the better equipped to take on Saracens for the title.
The hosts also had their attacking moments, most involving Nowell who set up their opening try on 21 minutes when he appeared in midfield following a lineout and offloaded to Ian Whitten who, after being tackled to the ground by Mullan, got back to his feet to run under the posts as he was entitled to – not having been held.
Whitten's try came during a period in the first half when the lead changed hands four times. Wasps regained the lead with their one telling move of the match, George Smith, Hughes and Frank Halai combining in a quick passing move before James Haskell took the ball up and, after another burst by Hughes, Robson saw Steenson lurking around the ruck and wrong-footed the fly-half. Generally, Wasps struggled to generate continuity. Little was seen of Christian Wade on the wing when he was not fielding kicks and the centre Elliot Daly was little more influential.
Smith showed his frustration in the second half when he bodychecked Nowell and Phil Dollman in a 10-second period, but Garner did not review either incident, just as he had not gone upstairs for a review of a kick by Will Chudley before the break that made contact with Joe Launchbury's head rather than the ball on the floor. Exeter, with Dave Ewers again influential, were too streetwise, but they will need to find something else next Saturday having been doubled by Saracens this season.
What this match showed, on top of the significance of home advantage, was that Sarries are top for a compelling reason.
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Posted on May 4th, 2016
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