Henry Slade the rock as unstoppable Exeter roll on to cherished double | Robert Kitson

By on October 25, 2020

No scorching May heat or packed stands, just damp autumn leaves on a windblown concourse and a soaking, empty colosseum. On the face of it this was as far removed from grand theatre as a small flapping tent on a sodden campsite but Exeter are increasingly a team for all seasons and stages, whatever the opposition or the weather throw at them.

It was properly Hitchcock shower-scene wet by the end but, when it absolutely counted, the Chiefs’ grip on a cherished double proved impossible to shake. They are in excellent company with only Leicester (twice), Wasps and Saracens (twice) having previously won the European Cup and Premiership in the same season. None of those fine sides had to contend with the unique challenges of this prolonged campaign, nor were they playing in the second tier of English rugby just a decade previously.

It is not just what Exeter are achieving that sets them apart but where they have come from. Once again, though, they kept their absent supporters on edge, only a crucial late lineout steal by Jonny Gray and a concluding penalty by Joe Simmonds, his 33rd consecutive successful kick dating back to the end of August, finally relieving the suffocating pressure. Not for the first time in recent times, an English club clad all in black simply refused to be denied.

Wasps also deserve massive credit, especially considering the Covid-disrupted buildup that cost them the services of four of their first-choice 23. At times Jacob Umaga played as if it were a midsummer night in the tropics, which was some feat, while Jimmy Gopperth played the angles beautifully alongside him. Until the Chiefs scrum finally began to ratchet up the pressure in the second half, it was anybody’s game.

Did the conditions play into the hands of Exeter’s big forwards? Maybe to an extent but at times it was virtually impossible for anyone to do anything beyond the absolute basics. There is a reason why union administrators prefer their finales to be played in late spring or early summer, on hard, fast tracks rather than inside the equivalent of a dishwasher halfway through its cycle.

Exeter Chiefs players celebrate with the Premiership trophy after their 19-13 victory against Wasps at Twickenham. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

The elements, though, could not stop Henry Slade displaying the class that makes him an increasingly sharp attacking threat. Ball in two hands, he was swift to spot a mismatch with two rather less mobile Wasps forwards and a little step took him over for another important big-game contribution. It is reaching the point where England need to think about building their starting midfield around Slade rather than endlessly agonising about where he might fit in.

Over the next few weeks, however, Eddie Jones will have to do without Jack Nowell, who was on the field here despite having severed ligaments beneath his big toe. The injury will rule him of autumn international consideration but there was no way he was going to miss out on a second major final in eight days. Even on one tattooed foot, the winger is still guaranteed to give everything and, one day, he will enjoy the prolonged run of injury?free rugby his Cornish fan club is yearning for.

There will be no more active outings, though, for Exeter’s other backline totem, Gareth Steenson, for whom this was the final game before retirement. Along with Phil Dollman and others he helped set the tone for what has followed back in the Championship days, not least an instinctive ability to rise to the biggest occasions. This time there was no need for the extra-time penalty winner that sunk Wasps in the 2017 Premiership final but, had there been, the Ulsterman would not have flinched. Perhaps the only unanswered question is this: what would have unfolded had Saracens’ salary cap misadventures not removed them from this season’s equation? None of us will ever know but this is now a more confident, wiser Exeter team than the one overtaken in the closing quarter of last year’s Premiership final.

Where Saracens faltered at the death in their European semi-final against Racing 92, too, the Chiefs have now twice held firm when it really mattered. This has been a season like no other and yet still, 12 months on, they remain tougher to shift than a superglued barnacle. Their key men all have plenty more mileage in them, Devon is suddenly a magnet for any ambitious player and they will be even harder to beat when their besotted fans are finally allowed back in Sandy Park.

Assuming they can find a way to celebrate over the next few days without joining the Barbarians on the naughty step, it would appear the West Country feelgood factor will endure for a while yet. Exeter have just won a double and still have a good deal of improvement in them. If that is not the definition of club rugby heaven, nothing is.

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