Small margins sink Wasps
'Small margins sink Wasps' and three other things we learned from Wasps Aviva Premiership semi-final defeat to Exeter Chiefs
With 12 minutes remaining, Wasps trailed by four points and with their front row on top, they were enjoying the majority of possession. A score at this point would have proved crucial, but it never arrived.
Dai Young's team twice won scrum penalties around halfway, which with a supporting wind were well within Elliot Daly's range. However, they opted to find a deep touch and to attempt a repeat of their first half driving lineout score, but neither proved successful.
Minutes later Sam Jones' half break took the visitors deep into Exeter's 22, but Ashley Johnson was unable to hold onto a difficult offload. Then Jimmy Gopperth's burst and a quick ruck released Wasps' backs, but when composure was called for an overly-ambitious attempted chip-through allowed Exeter to avert the danger.
Charles Piutau has barely put a foot wrong in a superb season during which he has been become recognised as one of the Premiership's outstanding backs. Sadly his first major error came in the semi-final and proved a very costly one. Piutau recovered a long Exeter kick deep in his own 22 and perhaps mindful of the narrow angle and stiff breeze which faced him, opted to run out of defence.
However, with two Exeter defenders closing fast, he disappeared down the blindest of alleys. The ball was duly turned over and although the TMO ruled out Don Armand's touchdown, from the field position established Exeter claimed a penalty try and Carlo Festuccia ended his Wasps career in the sinbin.
Jake Cooper-Woolley and Joe Launchbury, who made 21 tackles, led the way for Wasps' pack, while Jimmy Gopperth's tactical kicking and option-taking were first class and Siale Piutau put in a typically workmanlike display.
However, James Haskell was quite simply a colossus, who seemed to be at the heart of all the action. In addition to making 15 tackles, he smashed into rucks, scrapped hard on the ground and carried strongly.
Whether he will be the best No.7 in England, or according to Thomas Young's supporters even at Wasps, by next season remains an ongoing debate, but given how outstandingly well he performs the traditional duties of a No.6, it is a moot point.
Spirit of Rugby
Some superb photographs have emerged of the 46 players sharing a drink in the home changing room immediately after the final whistle. The clubs have met four times this season, including three matches in the last two months, two of which were epic battles.
Exeter emerged as 3-1 winners of the mini-series, but the mutual respect between the clubs, which is undoubtedly influenced by the sportsmanship shown by their respective bosses, Dai Young and Rob Baxter, does everyone credit.
It was great to see that a ferocious on-field battle, where quarter was neither asked for nor given, could be followed by such camaraderie, not to mention a thorough exploration of the possibilities presented by Ashley Johnson's hair!
Exeter's six-year rise from the Championship to the Premiership final is not exactly a rags-to-riches tale, but nonetheless they have become virtually everyone's second-favourite club. By contrast, a combination of suspicions around salary cap issues, criticism of their playing style plus lingering memories of their recent South African-dominated heritage under outspoken former chief exec Ed Griffiths, makes Sarries the club the rugby public loves to hate.
But while over 70,000 of those present at Twickenham next Saturday will be cheering on the Chiefs, this may serve only to drive the Fez Heads to new heights.
Saracens are the European champions and the only club to do the double over Exeter this year. They are in outstanding form currently, and in Billy and Mako Vunipola, George Kruis and the incredible Maro Itoje have four of the stand-out forwards currently playing the sport and as such are worthy favourites.
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