Sunday’s lunchtime clash between the Chiefs and Wasps at Sandy Park may have been a preview of the semi-final to come in a few weeks’ time but this game was certainly important in its own right. Entering the fray at a typically blustery Sandy Park, the well-rested Chiefs lay in third place in the Premiership with their visitors occupying second as well as having knocked them out of the Champions Cup in heart-breaking fashion.
A vociferous crowd waited in anticipation of the last regular season game at home as Jimmy Gopperth, a man Chiefs fans will know well for his last minute heroics in the Champions Cup, got proceedings underway. The Chiefs started the better of the two teams. Dave Ewers was working particularly hard in defence, putting in some crunching hits on Joe Launchbury and the sizeable frame of Nathan Hughes. The elusive Phil Dollman provided early attacking impetus with a neat half break but the hosts were unable to get anything going on the scoreboard. The Chiefs scrum struggled early and the usually unstoppable maul was only serving to concede turnover ball. Despite winning numerous penalties in range of the posts, Steenson and co. insisted on kicking to the corner, perhaps due in part to the difficult kicking conditions.
In the loose however, the Chiefs were far more dominant. Julian Salvi was adding his usual presence to the dark arts of the breakdown, despite coming up against his old mentor and Australian legend George Smith. Don Armand, typical of himself this season, was marauding around the pitch, powerful in attack and defence. However the early standout was England’s Luke Cowan Dickie, winning two turnover penalties and putting in some crunching tackles alongside the magnificent Ewers.
Eventually the pressure told on the visitors as Olly Woodburn, an ever-present this season, finished marvellously down in the blindside corner. Sniping round from one of the many lineouts, Woodburn brushed off the attentions of Frank Halai and bumped off Joe Simpson to finish expertly well. Steenson’s conversion was typically accurate and just before the half hour mark, we finally had some points.
Soon after, Woodburn looked to be in again for what appeared to be a try of the season contender. Henry Slade expertly released Phil Dollman into space before his cross-field kick was gathered and passed on to the impressive Woodburn but Geoff Parling was adjudged to have been offside from the kick. Elliot Daly’s howitzer of a left boot got the visitors on the board with a typically well-taken penalty from the half way line five minutes from the break.
Post-match Rob Baxter said how at half time he fancied his side to go on and win the game and he proved to be correct. Steenson’s early penalty ensured their 7-point lead was restored before Jack Nowell almost finished a brilliant individual piece of skill in the corner. Receiving the ball wide and in space, the Cornishman flattered to go alone before chipping ahead into the dead ball area. In a foot race with Halai and Charles Piutau, the England flyer appeared to be winning the battle before the ball cruelly took a wicked bounce into touch.
However the Chiefs would get their second try as Phil Dollman cut a fantastic line to crash under the posts following a sustained period of pressure on the Wasps line. With a 17-3 lead and having rarely been asked to sustain any real Wasps pressure, the Chiefs were beginning to find more and more opportunities. Will Chudley spotted an overlap out wide but his pass was airmailed into touch and replacement James Short almost caught the Wasps defence asleep. Rob Miller was lazy and failed to deal with a grubber kick with Short bearing down on him. Upon review it was deemed that Short was unable to dot down in front of Miller, a questionable decision to say the very least.
With ten minutes to go, the Chiefs’ star backs combined to brilliant effect once again. Receiving a pass behind him and with the try line beckoning, Slade released Nowell into a bit of space and his sidestep was simply too much for Miller as Nowell dotted down with elation.
Joe Simpson kicked the ball into touch with the clock red and the Chiefs had earned their dominant victory. Despite falling just short of a try bonus point, the Chiefs will be elated with the manner in which they completely nullified a dangerous Wasps outfit and responded to the heartbreak of the Champions Cup. Wasps will be back, they are too good of a team not to be, but for the moment Exeter can take a great confidence boost from this complete performance. They shall visit the Twickenham Stoop next weekend to face Harlequins in the final regular season game of the season.