sports gazette

Sensational final caps off fairytale Exeter rise

Published: 29 May 2017

The heart-stopping final at Twickenham on Saturday marked the converging of two different but inextricably linked stories.

The on-field action last weekend was absorbing and unrelenting, and when the final whistle blew after 100 minutes of action, it was no surprise to see the combatants fall to the ground, in disbelieving joy and gut-wrenching agony respectively.

For both teams, Saturday's fixture marked the crescendo of a remarkable rise to the top of the domestic game, a rise that has manifested itself very differently for each team.

In the 1996-97 season, exactly 20 years ago, Wasps were celebrating their second league championship, becoming the very first English champions of the new professional era.

That same season, Exeter too had reason for celebration: they were promoted from the third to the second tier of English rugby for the very first time.

Fast forward 15 years, to 2012, and the fortunes of the two clubs could not have changed more dramatically.

Exeter Chiefs, consistently pushing from promotion from the Championship during the 2000s, had not only finally achieved it, but had just two seasons later qualified for the Heineken Cup for the very first time, enjoying previously unimaginable trips to the likes of Leinster, Scarlets and Clermont Auvergne.

An analysis of the google search popularity for the term 'Exeter Chiefs' helps to show off this meteoric rise:

Wasps, meanwhile, were in dire straits. Languishing in the bottom third of the Premiership after the departure of their long-time director of rugby Shaun Edwards, the collapse of a takeover deal saw the club threatened with administration and facing on and off-field ruin.

Only a last-gasp victory against Newcastle saved the Wycombe-based side from relegation, and only an 11th hour buyout by Irish businessman Derek Richardson saved the club from financial disaster.

Faced at one point with a £1 million tax bill from HMRC and just £65.16 in the club account, it was up to the likes of director of rugby Dai Young to keep the club afloat, paying players wages out of his own pocket for a period when the club hit rock bottom.

The following season, facing an off-field situation with no staff, no sponsors and no money, the club made the unpopular decision to root sticks from their long-term home in Wycombe and move 82 miles up the M40 to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry where financial stability slowly returned.

Exeter's seemingly unstoppable rise to the top came to a shuddering halt last year, when they were first blown away in the first half of the Premiership Final against Saracens and then sleepwalked into just two wins in their first seven games to leave them languishing in seventh.

From November onwards however, the Chiefs were unstoppable, going unbeaten home and away in the Premiership and claiming a stunning league-leading 12 bonus points along the way.

Enough, surely to win the title in any ordinary season.

But this season was no ordinary season, as Wasps produced performance after performance of breathtaking brilliance, guided by a back-line of such quality the Premiership may never see one like it again.

And so it was that both teams arrived at Twickenham on Saturday, brimming with confidence but players and fans alike will have been aware of just how improbable it was that their teams even made it that far.

Ray, a long-time Wasps fan, from Coventry, was under no illusions about how important these games are to his club.

He said: "It’s important for revenue and it’s important for fanbase, they’ve been top all season so it’s very important."

On the club's move to his home town, he was understandably effused.

He said: "If you’ve got a premiership club literally dumped on your doorstep you’re going to watch them hence the reason a lot of people do.

"I’m a season ticket holder, they get good crowds at the Ricoh and they’re playing an excellent style of rugby."

The latter point is a crucial one for Wasps, as part of the reason they have been able to sustain such excellent crowds in Coventry has been the litany of star players lining up in yellow and black, including international calibre show-stoppers like Kurtley Beale and Willie Le Roux.

For Exeter fans like Alison, however, this day comes with a little more trepidation.

She said: "We came last year [when Exeter lost 28-20 to Saracens] so we’re hoping the journey home will be a bit better this time.

"It felt really long last year."

Even the prospect of taking part in a Premiership final at Twickenham is amazing enough for some Chiefs fans, who recall the days when the team was hitting not quite so dizzy heights.

Phil, from Exeter, said: "It’s been tearful.

"I’ve followed them right from the county ground from the early days upward. It’s been… quite good really!"

In the end, it was the Devonshire side that ruled the day, and it was only fitting that Gareth Steenson - the fly half who had kicked his team into the Premiership eight years earlier - scored the winning points, with director of rugby Rob Baxter's emotional reaction reflective of the journey his team has made.

For Wasps, it may not have been the grand finale their season deserved, but given the desperate financial situation the club had faced just five years earlier, being there at all was a pretty good prize.

They know better than anyone that a lot can change in one season.

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