A lot of teams go through heartache to get to the top. Saracens did it a few years ago – they lost Champions Cup finals, semi-finals and Premiership finals before they dominated over the last few years. Exeter obviously got to the final last year and came up just short. I think they spoke about being taken aback by the occasion and let Saracens get way ahead. I think that experience for Exeter will probably count for them.
Wasps over the last couple of years, too, have comes close. Champions Cup semi-final last year, Champions Cup quarter-final this year. They lost the Premiership semi-final away at Exeter last year and didn’t perform overly well last weekend. They got a try towards the end to win it. It’s amazing when you look at where that club has come from to where they are now. They nearly went bust and it’s been well documented in the press that Dai Young has done a fantastic job in the five years that he’s been there. He was buying tape and paying the bus man a few years back. Now, Derek Richardson has come in and done a tremendous amount of work at the club and financing certain projects which allowed the club to move and purchase the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. The club is now a top of the range business with world stars in their team. They’re at the stage where they deserve to be dining at the top table, ultimately it comes down to the game tomorrow and who can hold their bottle the most.
Exeter are on a fantastic run – 16 games unbeaten. Kurtley Beale is a huge loss, every time he touches the ball he produces a bit of magic, beats defenders, makes breaks or attracts that many defenders on him that it makes space for others. I just think that as much as I want Wasps to win, being an ex-Wasps player, I think Exeter are slight favourites.
Last weekend against Saracens the Exeter defence was phenomenal. They repelled Billy Vunipola time after time and they have a decent amount of line speed themselves, especially those first six or seven defenders around the breakdown. This is exactly where other teams have put Wasps under pressure before and you look at the Premiership semi-final last week, Wasps had so many opportunities but it took them to the 78th minute to get the game winning try. They made quite a few handling errors due to Leicester’s ferocious line speed and defence, so I think Exeter will try to target that and put Danny Cipriani, Robson and Gopperth under pressure – that 9-10-12 axis.
Ultimately if you can stop Nathan Hughes at the gain line, which many teams have managed to do over the last few weeks, Wasps don’t get that momentum and then the backs are under a bit of pressure. So the battle at number eight between Thomas Waldrom and Nathan Hughes is going to be huge. I just think that Exeter will know they have their driving lineout game to go back to as well which has been exceptionally successful against Wasps in the past. For Wasps, it’s about playing the right rugby in the right areas at the right time. They can rip any team to shreds on their day but it’s just that they can force it too much but hopefully the experience of Gopperth will be able to control that backline and understand the occasion of a Premiership final.
Scrums will also be interesting. You go back to both semi-finals and Exeter got on top of the Saracens scrum which ultimately won the penalty that Henry Slade banged 60 odd metres into the corner to get the winning try. Leicester put Wasps under huge pressure at scrum time until Dan Cole went off for the Tigers and I have no idea why they did that. I’m sure Exeter will target that area and try to win a few penalties because that has been a strength for the Chiefs this season.
Referee and Conditions
The way JP Doyle referees will be an advantage to both teams – he lets play go on. Doyle lets a lot go at ruck time where he tends to give the advantage to the attacking team. It’s going to be 29 degrees tomorrow at Twickenham, it’s going to be an energy sapping game. It’s going to be a game where there are players and bodies strewn all over the field because of the heat.
With the conditions and the fact that both sides like to play running rugby, the benches of the two teams could prove crucial in the outcome of this game. Exeter have the advantage in this regard. We saw young Sam Simmonds coming off the bench last weekend, he was outstanding at times. Tom Francis will come on at tighthead prop to make a difference at scrum time. Then you have Henry Slade and Michele Campagnaro on the bench – they’re real sparks and can add value when they come on.
My heart wants Wasps to win but ultimately, my head says Exeter.