It was seven years today that Exeter Chiefs finally arrived at English rugby’s top table.
On a wet and wild night at the Memorial Stadium, the dream became reality for Rob Baxter and his side as they overcame rivals Bristol in the inaugural Championship Play-Off Final.
In the years that have followed, Devon’s finest have not only defied the many doubters who claimed their existence in the Aviva Premiership would be short-lived, but instead they have built on the firm foundations to propel themselves as one of the rising forces within the English and European game.
A year ago that rise was well documented when the Chiefs reached English rugby’s showpiece final against reigning Euro Kings Saracens.
It was a historic day for the Westcountry outfit, but sadly it did not end in triumph as the star-studded Londoners used their experience of the bigger occasion to claim a 28-20 victory.
Fast forward to modern day and tomorrow the Chiefs are back at HQ, looking not only to dispel the bitter disappointment of last season, but at the same time forge a new – and hopefully – happier chapter in the club’s history by overcoming rivals Wasps.
The Chiefs will arrive, however, in a much different mood to that of 12 months ago. Whereas then it was almost an achievement in itself to get to the final, this time round Baxter and his squad are hellbent on securing the crown.
After a somewhat mixed start to the current campaign, the Chiefs have rallied superbly since October to get to this position. A 15-game unbeaten streak – which included last weekend’s last-gasp win over Saracens in the semi-finals – has put them on the cusp of greatness.
Now, they have to produce for one final time this season.
All week head coach Baxter has rammed home the importance of tomorrow’s occasion, not just to his players, but to fans, friends and media alike.
However, he knows he – and his team for that matter – are in a much better place this time round. The experience and lessons learnt in the wake of last year’s defeat have served a purpose, but now is the time to move on and achieve something special.
“I hope last year will be an absolutely massive advantage,” said Baxter. “To be honest, though, I don’t think it works like that. We were in our first ever front-line final last year and when you think back, there was a three-point difference in the teams with two or three minutes to go.
“I do believe it will help, I think the experience of those things is very important. Saracens were experienced last year and it was still a pretty tight game, so we have to make sure we don’t expect that having that experience from last year will be that big a factor.
“The big factor will be the quality that we play at and that is all you can do as a coach, I am sure Dai Young will be doing the same and he will be telling his team it is about the qualities that they show and the things they do on the day that will be important.
“We have to do exactly the same things. It’s how well we prepare this week and it’s how well we commit to what we want to do on the day that will matter, regardless of experience.”
Fittingly, tomorrow’s final brings together the Premiership’s top two teams following the scheduled season. Both clubs finished on 84 points, but it was Wasps who claimed pole position courtesy of their greater win ratio.
Ahead of kick-off, though, there is little to choose between either side and Baxter is expecting a titanic tussle this weekend.
“I think, if you look at the two semi-finals, you’d be hard pressed to say there is not a lot of potential there,” added Baxter. “It will be a very good final and when you look at the form of the two sides, they were level on points at the end of the season and it couldn’t be tighter coming through the league stage.
“We are the two highest try scorers and points scorers in the league, we are both on good form and had to play good rugby, so if you talk about potentially good games, then it has everything.
“It doesn’t matter massively. The truth is it’s about getting to finals first and foremost and how you get there is only part of the story and we’d like to think we have got there on merit and having played very well.
“But the truth is, as it is with most games in the Premiership, it is about who turns up in the right frame of mind, who turns up and is prepared to give as much to the game as is needed to win. That’s what Premiership seasons are built on and that’s what the Premiership final is going to be built on as well.”
Baxter’s positive outlook has been echoed by the Chiefs squad in recent weeks and he’s confident the 23 men entrusted with trying to win the cup will be able to deliver the perfect performance on the biggest of Twickenham stages.
“I think Steeno was right, it did feel different after the game last week,” said Baxter. “Obviously, the way we won the game and the amount of energy and emotion that we had to put into the game to beat Saracens was a key factor immediately after the whistle, but by the time the guys got into the changing room, it did feel a little bit different.
“It didn’t feel like we had achieved everything we wanted to achieve this season by winning that semi and getting to the final, but that said, it was only a feeling and feelings, as good as they are, have to be backed up by actions.
“We have to make sure training this week is good and we tick the boxes we need to tick and we get ourselves physically ready for a very, very big game of rugby.
“Wasps aren’t there by chance they have had a very good season and beaten some very good teams to get there and come through some emotional battles as well and they will be well set for the final, so it is going to be a fantastic challenge for us, but that is what finals are about.”
After the drama of last week’s semi-final, Baxter has stuck with virtually an unchanged line-up for the game. The sole change in personnel comes in the back division where Exeter Player of the Year Olly Woodburn returns from a hamstring injury to take the place of James Short on the wing.
Otherwise, the Chiefs – who will be led out by skipper Gareth Steenson, one of three survivors in the match-day squad from that night at Bristol – are unchanged.
15 Phil Dollman
14 Jack Nowell
13 Ian Whitten
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Olly Woodburn
10 Gareth Steenson (capt)
9 Stuart Townsend
1 Ben Moon
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Dave Dennis
5 Geoff Parling
6 Kai Horstmann
7 Don Armand
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Carl Rimmer
18 Tomas Francis
19 Mitch Lees
20 Sam Simmonds
21 Will Chudley
22 Henry Slade
23 Michele Campagnaro
Member since: 5th January 2016
Hi, I am Mark Stevens, Media and Communications Manager for the Exeter Chiefs