Exeter are supposedly all about their no-nonsense forwards while Wasps are a free-wheeling bunch of adventurous buccaneers. The truth is considerably more layered: this year’s two Premiership finalists, above all, are prime examples of the crucial power of the mind, as much as body, in successful professional sport.
Of course Exeter were punishingly physical against Bath while Wasps eventually ran Bristol ragged in the first of two one-sided semi-finals but at the heart of both results was something even more significant: a mindset, a belief and a collective trust that said far more about the victors than the big numbers on the scoreboard.
Exeter’s togetherness is extensively documented, less so their intense mutual determination never to experience again the gutting sense of disappointment they felt in their three losing finals against Saracens, particularly the most recent one last year. As outlined in Sunday’s Observer there remains a residual anger and frustration that has propelled them, tantalisingly, into two finals within the next fortnight.
As the long-serving Gareth Steenson observed on Saturday, it is still entirely possible his side will end up empty-handed: “We could be sitting here in two weeks’ time with nothing. We could be the most disappointed team in England.”
That would be harsh, given Exeter have in effect been required to try to win the title twice over, following the lockdown that halted the season in March, but their final defeats have taught all concerned not to count any West Country chickens before they have hatched.
That said, the squad’s motto right from the start of the longest season on record has been the self-evident “Fight for All”. No fewer than 57 players have worn Exeter’s jersey since the league resumed in mid-August and every individual has believed from day one that success on both European and domestic fronts is attainable if they all give their utmost.
To see a massive player such as Dave Ewers hurling himself through the air like a fully stretched goalkeeper – during the defensive siege that floored Bath and delivered his side’s fifth home semi-final victory in five years – was to glimpse the extent of the hosts’ desire.
That uncoachable emotional energy is precisely what distinguished teams who, to the outsider, seem to punch above themselves. Munster, Wasps in the early and mid-2000s, South Africa at last year’s World Cup are all good examples; it was interesting to read Lawrence Dallaglio in the Sunday Times suggest Exeter remind him of his own Wasps side who won the double in 2003-04.
As with Rob Howley and Craig Dowd back in the day, a little bit of imported extra class (Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray) and superior fitness levels mixed in with a super-smart coaching setup can still achieve great things.
It would clearly help if Jack Nowell can recover swiftly from his foot problem and the lock Jonny Hill avoids a ban for his clearout on Taulupe Faletau, which after careful scrutiny by the clear-eyed, experienced television match official Wayne Barnes and his referee, Luke Pearce, was adjudged to be worthy only of a yellow card on the day.
On the upside, the soon-to-retire Steenson suspects Exeter will be fully primed for their twin peaks whoever plays. “It is pretty special. I didn’t think I would see these days, I thought I would be sitting up with you guys watching from afar. It is a really exciting couple of weeks coming up. The message will be to get ourselves recovered and just build the emotional energy up again. This Saturday is probably the biggest game the club has ever faced. The emotional levels should be there, so it is about making sure we show up.”
The Wasps narrative is subtly different. Here they are in the final having won eight of their last nine regular season games and stuck another five tries on Bristol in a contest that, on paper, should have been closer than the runaway 47-24 outcome. What really stands out is the complete change in mentality since Lee Blackett took over as the head coach; from day one he has preached the importance of playing without fear or self-imposed limitations and seeing how far that takes a club previously mired in introspection.
Jack Willis’s remarkable defensive intervention that prevented Callum Sheedy from scoring a potentially game-altering try was far from a one-off; for anyone who watched Wasps come from behind to beat Bath at the Recreation Ground in late August, despite a spate of injuries, it was further confirmation of a team who now believe anything is possible.
Two very different finalists, then, united by a similar feeling their time is now. Assuming Exeter have sufficient energy left after their European adventures, the Premiership finale next week could just be closer than the semi-finals proved to be.