A difference between the Exeter of old and the team that subdued Wasps to add the Premiership crown to their European one is their ability to improvise. Henry Slade regarded the try he scored in last season’s final as the scantest consolation because the Chiefs went on to blow an 11-point lead, but his opportunist score against Wasps counted for far more.
Exeter had to delve deep within themselves to defeat opponents who were 10th in the table earlier in the season and who were without four players who had to isolate because of coronavirus, but they have developed such knowhow over the years that for the second week running they were able to find a way of winning a final they had not dominated.
Slade’s try came after 17 minutes when Wasps, who had started strongly, led through a Jimmy Gopperth penalty. A team whose place in the final was confirmed only on Wednesday after a round of testing for Covid-19 did not reveal a positive result and which had endured a disrupted training schedule, took the game to Exeter as a cloudburst made handling hazardous.
Wasps, unlike Racing 92 in the previous week’s Champions Cup final, rationed the penalties they conceded and were able to keep Exeter at arm’s length as both sides took to the air with the conditions making it a battle for position as much as possession.
Exeter’s best attack had been a lineout in the Wasps 22 following a penalty, but Joe Launchbury thwarted the drive and, as various forwards were not backed in the tackle as the Chiefs looked for weaknesses against opponents who, until recent weeks, had not been renowned for their defence, they struggled to get near the gainline never mind over it.
Then they decided to widen the point of the attack and when the ball reached Slade 35 metres out, he had two forwards in front of him, the prop Tom West and the No 8 Tom Willis.
The latter had to keep an eye on the outside because no one was lined up against Jack Nowell and Slade, spotting the gap between the two widening, left them looking at each other.
By the time the last line of defence, Matteo Minozzi, made his challenge, the England centre was into his stride and stepped inside to give his side the lead.
Wasps responded with an equally well constructed try. Dan Robson held the defence at a ruck on Exeter’s 22 and drew Jonny Hill to him as he feigned to run rather than pass. That left a hole that was filled by Jacob Umaga and as the outside-half gathered speed, he shrugged off the challenge of Stuart Hogg and left Dave Ewers choking in his vapour trail.
The try restored the lead for Wasps but it was Exeter who went into the interval ahead. The Chiefs, against their nature, opted to kick two penalties, a nod to the conditions and their opponents whose appetite for contact was not dampened by the rain. Wasps’ one area of weakness was up front but the referee gave the front rows latitude on a sodden surface.
Exeter started the second period as if smarting from a dressing room dressing down, although Wasps had an early chance when Robson followed up a charge down with a chip to the line only for Joe Simmonds to beat him to the bounce. The Chiefs are renowned for their finishing capacity from 10 metres, but they do not often come up against an opponent as adept at sabotaging possession as Jack Willis.
After Willis induced a penalty on his own line, Lima Sopoaga, who had just come on for Minozzi, followed up his long kick downfield, collared Ewers and forced a mistake from the flanker that led to a penalty which Gopperth kicked to level the scores. Wasps sensed an opportunity, but Exeter renewed their grip and forced three penalties in as many minutes, the last of which Simmonds converted to give his side the advantage again.
Still Wasps came but a reason Exeter, like Saracens before them, are champions is their capacity to turn pressure into points. There were five minutes to go when Wasps kicked a penalty to within five metres of the Chiefs’ line, a catch and drive away from their first title since 2008.
Gabriel Oghre, counterintuitively given the conditions, threw long but no one in a yellow jersey went for the ball and Exeter seized possession and never let the ball go, rumbling their way downfield and winning penalty after penalty. They kicked the final one to give Simmonds four on the night and, for the second time in four seasons, a narrow victory over Wasps in the final. Double trouble.