At the end of the longest Premiership campaign on record there remains little sign of Exeter coasting towards the chequered flag. Last week’s Champions Cup success, if anything, has merely enhanced their appetite for success and Rob Baxter believes his players are ready to become only the sixth team to claim a European and domestic double.
Having kicked off this season more than 12 months ago and had their title push interrupted in the spring, Exeter are understandably keen not to waste all that hard work now. Add in the lingering memories of last year’s traumatic final defeat to Saracens and a cruelly-weakened Wasps pack, shorn of Simon McIntyre, Kieran Brookes, Brad Shields and Alfie Barbeary, and Baxter’s side will be devastated if they fall short.
With the aforementioned quartet isolating following the Covid-19 outbreak that had placed Wasps’ final participation in doubt, it is certainly hard to imagine Wasps establishing a dominant set-piece platform from which their exciting attacking potential can be easily realised.
Baxter, either way, simply wants his team to keep doing what they do best, namely keeping possession, competing hard with and without the ball and turning the screw in the latter stages. “I’d love for them to round off their season in a special way by producing one of those big Exeter-type performances,” said the Chiefs’ director of rugby.
“We’re one game away from doing the double but experience has taught me that dreams don’t count for much. It’s the hard work you put out on the field which makes it all happen. We’ve got very recent experience of what it takes to win a big game. If we’re expecting it to be a normal game of rugby we are going to get shocked.”
Among Exeter’s high command, there is also a sense that rising to another major challenge eight days on from the club’s finest hour is ultimately more about actions than words. “It’s not for us as a coaching group to say too much,” Baxter said. “It’s up to us to challenge them about how they want to be remembered in this game. Do you want an 80 minutes that could define your career to slip by or are you going to stand and fight? There is never a game you win because it drops at your feet.”
With a slightly rejigged starting lineup, in which Sam Skinner and Jannes Kirsten have been rewarded for their parts in Exeter’s heroic last-ditch stand in the closing stages against Racing, and a damp weather forecast, there is also a strong desire to bid a fitting farewell to the retiring Gareth Steenson, for so long Exeter’s tactical linchpin and goal-kicking assassin.
It was against the same opponents in 2017 that Steenson’s boot famously clinched Exeter’s first Premiership title in extra time but they will fancy finishing this job inside 80 minutes. The fly-half’s fast-maturing protege, Joe Simmonds, also wants his team to atone for the three Twickenham defeats they have also endured over the past four years: “We don’t like losing in finals and it showed against Racing. We’re going to go out there all guns blazing to get the result.”
With the referee Wayne Barnes also sidelined by a positive Covid test, the final will now be overseen, for the first time, by Craig Maxwell-Keys. Wasps and their excellent head coach, Lee Blackett, already deserve huge credit for rescuing their season – five of their first six league games were lost – but if they can surmount their Covid crisis to dash Exeter’s dreams of greatness it will be among the crazier final twists in Premiership history.