Exeter overwhelm wobbling Wasps to put Heineken Cup place in sight
Each and every season is an arduous marathon but Exeter Chiefs would suddenly love this one to continue for several more weeks. This was their fifth victory in their past six league games and a bonus-point flattening of Wasps has seriously refreshed their prospects of Heineken Cup rugby next season. One further win over Gloucester on Saturday week and a cherished top-six finish will become reality.
On this evidence will be quietly confident of completing the job in style, although they were helped here by a defensive effort from Wasps that, on occasions, would have shamed a sieve. Through the myriad gaps poured the highly-motivated visitors, with Damian Welch and Gareth Steenson both enjoying hugely productive games. Those who damn the Chiefs with faint praise are failing to recognise their continuing improvement under the shrewd guidance of Rob Baxter and Ali Hepher.
The only way they can now be denied a top-six finish is if Bath can win at the leaders Saracens, and Baxter is not alone in wondering what might have been had only one of a clutch of narrow league defeats this season been reversed. "One more win would have made the end of this season really exciting for us because we are finishing strongly," sighed the head coach. "We just needed it to become drier about a month earlier."
For , in contrast, the final weekend of the campaign cannot come quickly enough. Considering they avoided relegation by a single point last season, a final placing of eighth in the table this time represents a relative improvement but Dai Young, their director of rugby, was suitably dismayed by the number of missed tackles that helped the Chiefs establish a 20-3 lead inside the first 25 minute thanks to tries from the two Jacks, Yeandle and Nowell.
When the galloping Welch breezed through the air-clutching tackles of Phil Swainston and the full-back Elliot Daly just 80 seconds after the restart, Young's instant substitution of his tight-head prop sent an unmistakable message and the former Wales and Lions prop did not mince his words afterwards. "I felt a lot of senior players fell off a lot of tackles which you'd expect them to make," said Young curtly. "We've finished the season dreadfully which is something we're going to have to look at. Credit to Exeter, who I thought were really good, but they didn't bring anything we didn't expect.
" It would have been good to have finished in the top six but, if we had done, I think I'd have been concerned. I don't think we're ready for Heineken Cup rugby. There are certain areas in our teams which are not strong enough to compete with the top four in the Premiership, let alone the top sides in Europe."
The outstanding Christian Wade, who scored another scorching second-half try to add to his eye-catching portfolio, and Tom Varndell, a try-scorer on his 100th club appearance, are clearly exempt and Joe Launchbury is another around whom Wasps will look to build as they contemplate the future under their new backer, Derek Richardson. This, however, was a chastening last home appearance for the retiring former Wales fly-half Stephen Jones, while Billy Vunipola is off to Saracens. Until Wasps rediscover the consistent power and mental sharpness that characterised them in their glory years they will remain a team who delight and frustrate in pretty equal measure.
Perhaps they should start by studying the Chiefs a little closer and asking why so many visiting players seemed hungrier for victory on a day that should have motivated both teams to a similar degree. With Brett Sturgess back fit, the Exeter scrum was never under much pressure and it was hard to spot a single visiting player who did not look energised by the challenge of producing high-calibre, pacy, off-loading rugby away from home in the ninth month of a demanding campaign.
Some interesting new signings are heading west for next season but, first and foremost, they will be required to fit into a proactive structure epitomised by the likes of the enthusiastic Welch, the consistent Luke Arscott at full-back and the relentlessly tough Richie Baxter. "We showed an endeavour and an enthusiasm which we've sometimes lacked when we've been points up," confirmed Rob Baxter. "We kept at them regardless of what else was happening." Gloucester, already assured of Heineken Cup rugby, will do well to resist the Chiefs' collective sprint finish.
London Wasps Daly; Wade, Masi (Southwell, 44), C Bell (capt), Varndell; Stephen Jones (T Bell, 61), Simpson (Davies, 70); Taulafo (McIntyre, 58), T R Thomas, Swainston (Taylor, 43), Launchbury, Palmer (Wentzel, 64), Johnson, Haskell (Sam Jones, 61), Vunipola.
Tries Wade, Southwell, Varndell. Cons Stephen Jones 2, Bell. Pen Daly.
Exeter Chiefs Arscott; Nowell, Dollman, Shoemark (Whitten, 63), Jess; Steenson, Thomas (Chudley, 64); Sturgess (Rimmer, 75), Yeandle (Whitehead, 64), Tui (Mitchell, 64), Mumm, Welch, White (Ewers, 58), Scaysbrook (Muldowney, 75, Baxter (capt).
Tries Yeandle, Nowell, Welch, Steenson. Cons Steenson 4. Pens: Steenson 3. Sin-bin Scaysbrook 49.
Referee W Barnes. Attendance 7,197.