When Gareth Steenson kicked the conversion in the dying seconds to take the score to 34-23, most fans weren’t even watching. They were celebrating for Exeter Chiefs had just been awarded a penalty try to secure their first ever Aviva Premiership Final.
Six short years ago Steenson was kicking the Chiefs to promotion from the Championship. On Saturday he was leading his team to Twickenham where they will face Saracens, reigning European Champions, last year’s Premiership victors, and odds on favourites to lift the trophy.
Despite next week’s opponents dominating the 2015-16 season, Exeter will go to Twickenham confident that they can put up a fight after an exciting win against London Wasps.
Playing with the wind in their favour, two Steenson penalties gave the home side an early lead. However, Wasps soon struck back, using the Chiefs favourite tool against them. From a five metre lineout, secured by Joe Launchbury, the visitors used an impressive driving maul to cross the try line, Hooker Carlo Festuccia touching down and Jimmy Gopperth converting to take the score to 6-7 after 17 minutes.
Exeter were not going to let the opposition extend their advantage. After a second Wasps’ lineout was deemed not straight, Jack Nowell was almost away on the wing. Only a lucky tackle and slippery ground denied him a try.
Fans did not have to wait long for this to be rectified. With the wind against them Wasps could only clear to their own 22. Nowell was soon released once again to break through the middle of the Wasps’s defence and deliver a beautiful offload to Ian Whitten The visitors thpught they had brought him down but the centre scrambled through his tacklers to cross the whitewash. Steenson duly added the extras.
Wasps’ big men soon hit back. A scrum penalty gave them a good attacking platform, with Nathan Hughes and James Haskell powering to within inches of the line, allowing scrum half Dan Robson to take the honours. Once again, Wasps were a point ahead.
It was crucial for the home side to take back the initiative before half time. Henry Slade’s thumping boot launched the ball past Wasp’s back three, stopping just before the try line. With Slade and Nowell quickly descending upon him, Charles Piutae foolishly decided to run the ball. He was quickly caught by the two England internationals.
Don Armand picked up the stray ball, avoiding three defenders to cross the line to the glee of the crowd. Unfortunately there had been a double knock on in the previous ruck and the try was not allowed.
With the Tomahawk Chop roaring around Sandy Park, Exeter won a penalty from the resulting scrum. They kicked to the corner but the rolling maul was illegal pulled down for another penalty. The same happened again, and a third time. Referee Greg Garner was clearly fed up of these continuous infringements, running to the posts to award the Chiefs an easily convertible penalty try in the dying seconds of the first half, and a yellow card to try scorer Festuccia.
Going into the second half 20-14 down Wasps expected to have the wind in their favour. To the delight of the home fans though that advantage had significantly decreased. Despite this, they still drew first blood, Gopperth closing the gap to just three points on 44 minutes from a scrum penalty.
However, Exeter Chiefs soon took advantage of their one man advantage. Olly Woodburn reclaimed the restart to trigger the Chiefs attack. Whitten broke to the five metre line and the forwards took over, with Dave Ewers eventually surging over the line, Nathan Hughes and Bradley Davies unable to stop the powerful number 8. Steenson maintained his 100% success rate to give the Devon side a 10 point lead.
However, homes fans could not relax just yet. Two Gopperth penalties took the visitors to within a single score of stealing the game with 12 minutes to play, plenty of time for a repeat of the Chiefs’ Champion’s Cup quarter final heartbreak.
This repeat almost occurred. Wasps had a two man overlap within a sniff of the try line. Instead of passing it through the hands a kick to the winger was attempted and intercepted. The immediate danger had passed.
Wasps tried to get in another dangerous position but Nowell, who had been a pest all afternoon, ripped possession from Haskell on the halfway line. The Chiefs attacked and were soon awarded a penalty. Slade kicked it to the corner and the Chiefs set to book their ticket to Twickenham with their trademark rolling maul. Held up over the line. Scrum. A very generous penalty try ended the game. The crowd erupted and booked their own tickets to Twickenham to watch their team add yet another chapter to Devon’s fairy tale.
Wasp’s Director of Rugby Dai Young was gracious in defeat stating, ““The two teams in the final have been the two best teams all season. It will be a great final.”