Ever since their promotion to English rugby’s top tier in 2010, the Exeter Chiefs have moved from strength to strength. A gradual progression from relegation survival, through to mid table security and improving European results led to defeat in last year’s showpiece final at Twickenham. After another strong season, which has left the Devon side in 2nd place with 3 fixtures to go, is this the year the Chiefs go on to claim English rugby’s biggest prize?
Exeter started the season with a whimper. Tough opening fixtures against Wasps and Saracens started a run of 6 losses in 9 games, before a 62-25 thrashing of Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh Cup seemed to spark the side into life. A strong win away in Newcastle followed only to be usurped by a superb 57-22 demolition of Worcester. For some reason the previous indecision and lack of cutting edge in attack had suddenly reappeared, making the Chiefs very dangerous indeed. In fact, Exeter haven’t lost in the league since the 30th of October – 2 weeks before the turning point of the Cardiff fixture. Losses to Saracens and Wasps in the first 2 rounds were improved to draws in the return fixtures, Leicester were defeated home and away and most other matches were dispatched with relative ease.
“For some reason the previous indecision and lack of cutting edge in attack had suddenly reappeared, making the Chiefs very dangerous indeed.”
Exeter’s form in the Champions Cup was not so impressive. Finishing 3rd in a group containing Clermont, Ulster and Bordeaux-Begles is no mean feat, however after last season’s close finish against double winners Saracens, Chiefs fans will be excused for not being a little disappointed. Injuries to monster carrier Dave Ewers as well as Michele Campagnaro and Jack Nowell won’t have helped, but the Chiefs would have hoped to have won more than two of their games. Nevertheless, such disappointments are often blessings in disguise. Saracens will have to play at least two extra gruelling knock out matches compared to the Chiefs – although they proved last season they have the strength to do so. Whether they can do so again this season only time will tell, but it should benefit Exeter.
Indeed, if there is anything to take from Saracens, it is that hardship breeds success. The London side won their first Premiership title a year after giving away a one point lead with five minutes to spare in 2010, and their first European final two years after not turning up against Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon. Chiefs will have learnt how to play the big games after last year – something which was evident in their strong Anglo-Welsh Cup showing in which they lost to Leicester in the final. A powerful Tigers team won by 4 points, but again Exeter should be able to learn from their mistakes, and the hurt of coming so close to a trophy once again should drive the team on.
Much of the Chiefs’ charge for the line will rest on their ability to finish in a top 2 berth, and as such claim a home semi-final. Ten of the last 12 semi-finals have been won by the home side, and if the table were to stay as it is then Exeter would need all the support they can muster for the visit of Saracens. However, the Chiefs run-in could be easier. Northampton Saints visit Sandy Park in what will, again, be a tight match. Saints’ form has been incredibly inconsistent this season, but they pushed Wasps all the way in their last match losing only to a last-minute conversion. Finally, Chiefs travel to Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites proved a stern test in their 27-27 draw earlier in the season but if Chiefs can show some of their better form then they would hope to win. In fact, two wins out of two is not ridiculous, however each one has the potential to be a banana skin.
“Ten of the last 12 semi-finals have been won by the home side, and if the table were to stay as it is then Exeter would need all the support they can muster for the visit of Saracens.”
The only saving grace is that Saracens and Wasps both also face challenging run-ins too. The champions face Saints and Wasps away either side of a home match against Bristol, whilst Wasps play Bristol and Quins away before Sarries’ visit. Losses against Quins and Saracens are not unimaginable for a Wasps side that has lacked the same sparkle they produced a couple months ago. They were well beaten by Leinster in the Champions Cup, and fortunate to scrape past Saints last weekend. Points-wise ,Chiefs sit five points behind Wasps but, crucially, only one point ahead of Saracens. Picking up as many points as possible will be vital as finishing 3rd would likely leave a trip to Saracens in the semi-finals – a tough ask for any side.
The season promises to end in a grandstand finish then, with home semi-finals, the final playoff slot and European Cup places all up for grabs. Can Chiefs win it? Definitely. On their day, they can play anyone off the park, however the performances will need to be top-notch in order to beat the likes of Saracens and Wasps along the way.