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It’s a knockout

Sam Roberts

In a Gallagher Premiership season that has emptied the contents of the bin marked ‘unexpected’, the final salvo, to be triggered in just under two weeks’ time, will, reassuringly, include the two names at the top of the league ladder. One has steadily trademarked the idea of ‘immovable object’, the other has flourished under the moniker of ‘irresistible force’.

Exeter and Wasps are our ultimate contenders. Both came through testing semi-finals, but as the clock wound round to the 60-minute mark in their respective games, both sides had done enough to allow thoughts to drift toward the other. Both are coached by a canny Englishman; both represent an endearing narrative that can capture the imagination. Both contain notable names of, as yet, under-utilised personnel in Eddie Jones’ England squad; Willis, Robson, both Simmonds, Hill. Indeed, a national team selected from only these two clubs could be quite a force.

In a Gallagher Premiership season that has emptied the contents of the bin marked ‘unexpected’, the final salvo, to be triggered in just under two weeks’ time, will, reassuringly, include the two names at the top of the league ladder. One has steadily trademarked the idea of ‘immovable object’, the other has flourished under the moniker of ‘irresistible force’.

Exeter and Wasps are our ultimate contenders. Both came through testing semi-finals, but as the clock wound round to the 60-minute mark in their respective games, both sides had done enough to allow thoughts to drift toward the other. Both are coached by a canny Englishman; both represent an endearing narrative that can capture the imagination. Both contain notable names of, as yet, under-utilised personnel in Eddie Jones’ England squad; Willis, Robson, both Simmonds, Hill. Indeed, a national team selected from only these two clubs could be quite a force.

We were reminded of an ancient rugby adage: any team’s potency is diminished without good ball. Like a crafty and pestilent Cockney, Wasps’ hands were all over Bristol’s.

Jones watched on at the Ricoh: under his famous ‘Texans’ hat, without the crowd that had booed him previously. They wouldn’t have needed to make their voices heard; Jack Willis was doing everyone’s talking. As he and Thomas Young, another man left out of international conversations, were pilfering and procrastinating, we were reminded of an ancient rugby adage: any team’s potency is diminished without good ball. Like a crafty and pestilent Cockney, Wasps’ hands were all over Bristol’s.

And if you’ve been surprised by the Coventry outfit’s turn of events, from tenth to Twickenham in a trio of months, you won’t look as shocked as Lee Blackett. Like the Craig Cash of English rugby, staring into the camera as Dave did while sat next to his beloved Denise in The Royle Family, the former Rotherham centre appears to be as taken aback by proceedings as anyone. The head coach’s unassuming brilliance has galvanised a good team and made them much better. Blessed with the tools to exploit the new breakdown interpretations, Wasps have excelled since lockdown.

Joe Simpson
Dan Robson shows the Bristol defence a clean pair of heels (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Within twenty minutes, Blackett’s men were a baker’s dozen clear: Dan Robson’s chip-through seized upon by a now-limping and soon-to-be-substituted Malakai Fekitoa. Max Malins and Piers O’Conor looked at each other as if to apportion blame, but some things are nobody’s fault. Bristol flickered through a Luke Morahan five-pointer but the game was as good as over by the oranges: Wasps and Jimmy Gopperth’s boot were too accurate, too relentless. 

By the second half, holes were appearing like those in Danny Cipriani’s jeans, and Wasps, like their former talisman, were enjoying working with them. Robson snuck down the referee’s blind side and Zach Kibirige scorched clear as the Bears dropped offensive ball. Then, the coup de gras: Josh Bassett and Matteo Minozzi combined cleverly on the left flank after the former had gathered a sumptuous cross-field kick. Bristol were bereft, the breakdown bet on which head coach Pat Lam had gambled a free-flowing game around their Fijian flyer Radradra was lost; Wasps had quelled their Semi quicker than the coldest of showers.

To Sandy Park, a Devon arena achingly familiar with such a penultimate contest, having won all of their previous four. The battles have come thick and fast this season for the Chiefs, on and off the field; other recently vanquished foes include the likes of Toulouse and left-wing Twitterati. Surely Tony Rowe’s Churchillian jowls would not allow anything but a Bath scalping?

The Chiefs are so much more than bloody-mindedness. They are a wonderful heavyweight; with their strength, they couple speed; with their power, they pair proficiency.

But the Chiefs are so much more than bloody-mindedness. They are a wonderful heavyweight; with their strength, they couple speed; with their power, they pair proficiency. Time and again they were able to keep moves alive with deliciously deft touches. They stand off potential rucks until absolutely needed, always anticipating an offload. Anyone who refers to them as ‘round-the-corner merchants’ has not accounted for the chicanery they can create.

And defensively, Exeter are more than unyielding. They are a team who profit from attempts on their own line. Bath advanced well but could not breach the boundary that the home side kept so impeccably. Exeter’s dominant defence, said director of rugby Rob Baxter, “probably wore Bath down more than our attack”. 

Joe Simpson
Joe Simmonds pulls away from the Bath cover defence (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The game itself was not without contention, though. Thirty-three minutes in, Jonny Hill’s clearout on Taulupe Faletau was without arms and very close to the head of the British & Irish Lion. Pockets of social media waved around imaginary red cards as TMO Wayne Barnes and referee Luke Pearce talked themselves down from such a high ledge. The citing commissioner today saw no case to answer for Hill, whose second try later in the game took him to the top of the try-scoring charts in the top flight this year (12), leaving his detractors to mutter injustice and take to their keyboards to vent.

But 12 have become two, and we have a final promising the neutral the oldest of choices. More than 12 months since it all began, via a year that contains more ‘Breaking News’ than any of us can handle, the unattached Premiership fan has a decision to make: head or heart? And like all proper showpieces, there is some succulent ‘previous’: the 2017 final between these two teams had extra-time and a 98th-minute penalty goal. Should both teams fire in a fortnight’s time, rugby will definitely be the richer. And in this exiguous era, we need as much wealth as we can get.

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