Saturday’s Premiership final saw the Wasps phoenix take on the Exeter swan, with both sides basing their games more on guile and attacking exuberance than the grit and guts we might have previously expected as a traditional English final.
With Wasps on the brink of financial collapse and relegation in 2012 and approaching a state of non-existence, their appearance in this year’s showpiece event five years later highlighted the stunning recovery they have made. From their ashes has risen one of the most exciting teams in northern hemisphere rugby.
Back in 2012 a core of young players like Joe Launchbury, James Haskell and Elliot Daly kept the team in the country’s top domestic league and it was their determination that saw them rise to become international stars. Director of rugby Dai Young worked miracles on a shoestring budget and brought with him a playing philosophy that permeates every decision in every game the team plays.
Now relocated to Coventry and setting themselves up in their stunning Ricoh Arena home – one of the best sports facilities in the country – Wasps have emerged from the shadows of the great teams of the Warren Gatland and Ian McGeechan eras that saw them victorious in Europe on two occasions and winners of the Premiership four times.
Exeter Chiefs, in contrast, are a side that have emerged from the lower leagues of English rugby and slowly and steadily adapted to the demands of life at the top. It is an evolution from ugly duckling to flamboyant swan that has been engineered by their stoic coach Rob Baxter, a man who spent 14 years of his playing career at the club and has been at the helm as its coach since 2009.
In the same year he took over as coach, Baxter oversaw the Chiefs’ Championship play-off final win over Bristol, sending the club into the Premiership for the first time.
In a notoriously competitive league they were able to secure eighth position in their debut season, narrowly missing out on the play-offs in 2011-2012; finishing sixth in 2012-2013 and gaining a spot in the Heineken Cup for the following season; an eighth place finish a year later; fifth in 2015 and losing finalists against champions Saracens last year.
Their stunning 18 – 16 victory over the same team in the semi-finals this year meant the Chiefs went into their second successive final and have now secured their first ever piece of top level domestic silverware (although they did taste Anglo-Welsh Cup glory a few years back).
In that time Baxter has relied on some foreign imports for experience, but has focussed his squad on developing from within, with homegrown talents Tomas Francis, Don Armand, Mitch Lees, Tom Johnson, Dave Ewers, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell and Phil Dollman all going on to be recognised at international or ‘A’ level.
Both sides prefer to play expansive rugby and out-think rather than out-muscle their opposite numbers, which is exactly why fixtures between the two clubs always prove to be monumental affairs. Wasps’ stunning 25-24 victory over the Chiefs in last year’s Champions Cup was arguably one of the best games domestic rugby has seen, and Saturday’s final was just as exciting.
Exeter’s win signals the birth of a new era in English rugby, and for that reason it was a match that you must watch again and again. But please give credit to Wasps as well. Although Exeter will have their name on the trophy, this match was a joy to watch and a fantastic advert for the game. Beautifully crafted, attacking rugby is no longer a flight of fancy in the Aviva Premiership.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena