Seven years after kicking Exeter Chiefs into Aviva Premiership Rugby, skipper Gareth Steenson proved once again that ice runs through his veins as his decisive penalty in extra time saw Rob Baxter’s men claim an astonishing 23-20 Final triumph.
Exeter got the flying start they had lacked in last year’s Twickenham showpiece, as both Jack Nowell and Phil Dollman crossed before the half-hour mark, but despite their dominance Jimmy Gopperth’s try on the stroke of half-time gave Wasps a lifeline at 14-10.
And while Elliot Daly’s opportunistic try just three minutes into the second half completed a remarkable turnaround, Steenson outscored Gopperth by two penalties to one – including a clutch last-minute kick – to make it 20-20 at the full-time whistle.
Ten minutes each way were left to decide an epic contest, and after hammering away at the Wasps line for most of extra time, Steenson’s kick with two minutes left on the clock sent the Chiefs into ecstasy in front of almost 80,000 people at the home of English rugby.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) May 27, 2017
Chiefs dominated possession in the early stages, but could not find the score they deserved until the 14th minute.
Nathan Hughes held the West Country outfit at bay to begin with, making several massive hits in the midfield, but two straight scrum penalties against Wasps set the tone.
And it was from the second Exeter finally found the breakthrough, with Steenson kicking into touch for a lineout and Nowell going over after a brilliant training-ground move.
Masters of the rolling maul, the Chiefs set up a decoy driving lineout and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie found the England winger, who ripped a stunning line to scythe straight through a gap and cross the whitewash in the corner – Nowell’s sixth try in his last nine games against Wasps.
Steenson made no mistake with the conversion, but Wasps hit straight back with a routine three-pointer from Gopperth after the Aviva Premiership Rugby player of the season had made the initial break.
But Exeter were not discouraged and had their second try on 28 minutes, after moving the ball out wide early.
Tony Rowe. Thank you pic.twitter.com/TwZ2ZpPdF9
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) May 27, 2017
Ollie Devoto’s straight run drew two defenders, and the centre then sent Dollman over from close range for his first try of the season with a perfectly-timed offload.
Wasps looked down and out at 14-3 down, with Elliot Daly uncharacteristically kicking out on the full and Tommy Taylor seeing a lineout lost, but Gopperth struck a sucker punch just before the interval.
Danny Cipriani jinked inside on halfway, and after Taylor’s carry, Dan Robson drew the last defender’s tackle and there was Gopperth on his shoulder to go over under the posts.
And just three minutes into the second half, Wasps were ahead for the first time in the game. Hughes made another swashbuckling carry before Gopperth found Christian Wade out wide.
While the lightning-fast winger could not collect his own chip through, the ball sat up beautifully for Daly to dot down, and Gopperth slammed his conversion attempt though off the inside off the post to make it 17-14.
Wasps were really turning it on now, moving the ball across the Twickenham turf with ease, and when Chiefs were pinged for not releasing ten minutes later Gopperth punished them with three more points from the tee.
Thank you to all of the Wasps fans at Twickenham & all season, you were fantastic today, we could hear you loud and proud. Safe trips home. pic.twitter.com/UeyIFbvM4c
— Wasps (@WaspsRugby) May 27, 2017
But Steenson narrowed the gap to three points with 15 minutes remaining after Wasps were penalised for not releasing, and from there on in it was Exeter who were asking all the questions – showing off their cohesiveness at the ruck to build a 34-phase move and set up camp in Wasps’ 22.
But after Chiefs turned down an easy three points and heroic defence from Dai Young’s men, Guy Thompson finally relieved the pressure as he came up with the ball.
All looked lost for the Chiefs as replacement Michele Campagnaro dropped the ball close to the line with three minutes remaining, but gutsy work again at the breakdown from Exeter won them a last-gasp penalty – with Steenson showing nerves of steel to level the scores.
After a fruitless siege on the Wasps line in the first half of extra time, Sam Simmonds looked to recreate his semi-final heroics as he scrambled over but the TMO adjudged the ball to have been held up.
But after scrum after scrum was reset, eventually the Chiefs were awarded the decisive penalty with just three minutes on the clock, and for the second time in the game Steenson showed his mettle to slot the winning kick straight through the uprights.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) May 27, 2017
Exeter are now unbeaten in their last 17 Aviva Premiership Rugby matches, tying Leicester Tigers’ all-time record in the competition set between 1999 and 2000.
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