What a prospect for the lucky few allowed in to watch the English Premiership final at Twickenham – the proven class of Exeter Chiefs against the derring-do of Harlequins
Gallagher Premiership final preview – Exeter Chiefs v Harlequins
It is way too simplistic to view the Gallagher Premiership final on Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm) as a clash of styles. Exeter can and do play some exquisite running rugby while a rod of steel runs through the Harlequins pack moulded by Jerry Flannery and Adam Jones.
Nevertheless, if the game opens up and turns into anything like the 12-try extravaganza seen at Ashton Gate last weekend, then Harlequins will be in their element. Exeter would be wise to keep a lid on things, which means hanging onto the ball – a specialty of theirs.
Recent history suggests we’re set for a nailbiter at Twickenham. Five of the last six league games between the teams have been decided by one score, including the latest encounter in March, when Chiefs edged it 21-20 with a late try by Dave Ewers.
Ewers is missing this weekend, suspended along with Sam Skinner after both players made a high tackle in the round 22 win against Sale. When the sides met again in last week’s semi-final, Manu Tuilagi somehow escaped with a yellow card after a strong arm to the face of Richard Capstick that left the flanker staggering.
Watch highlights of Exeter’s semi-final win at Sandy Park here…
Exeter DoR Rob Baxter said after their 40-30 win: “We’ve got two players serving four-week bans for instances that didn’t even have an HIA. And today we have a guy (Capstick) wiped out in the first two minutes who can take no further part in the game and it’s a yellow card. If someone is going to tell me this all makes sense, I don’t know what sense it is making.”
Baxter, as usual, is right. Exeter have been wronged but sport has always involved injustices. Chiefs will want to use their indignation as fuel for the fire.
A feeling has persisted pretty much all season that Chiefs are not quite the team that won the Premiership and European double last year. They’ve had to dig deep to overcome deficits, have salvaged wins from unlikely situations when before they would have had the points wrapped up. That is the perception. Yet they are here again, a sixth straight final for the Devon outfit who have transformed the Premiership landscape since their promotion in 2010.
Related content: A review of the Exeter book Exe Men
For so long the underdogs in their years of Twickenham pain against Saracens, Exeter are now the hunted and gunning for their third Premiership crown in five years.
LAST NINE PREMIERSHIP FINALS
2012 Harlequins 30-23 Leicester
2013 Leicester 37-17 Northampton
2014 Northampton 24-20 Saracens (aet)
2015 Saracens 28-16 Bath
2016 Saracens 28-20 Exeter
2017 Exeter 23-20 Wasps (aet)
2018 Saracens 27-10 Exeter
2019 Saracens 37-34 Exeter
2020 Exeter 19-13 Wasps
Harlequins, without a major trophy since 2013, will have the support of the romantics after their exhilarating attacking play in 2021.
Their 89 tries in the regular Premiership season was 25 more than any Quins team had managed before them and they added seven more to that last weekend in the extraordinary 43-36 extra-time win at Bristol – having trailed 28-0 after 38 minutes.
Joe Marler was one of those to speak well during the half-time breather. “When he speaks everyone listens, and what he has done on the field is world class,” No 8 Alex Dombrandt said. “I don’t think there are many loosehead props that can do what he does on a regular basis.”
It was a match for the ages and in terms of a fightback compares to anything the game has ever seen. As Rob Kitson informed us in The Guardian, Chile lost to Uruguay in 2007 having led 27-0 at the break, while Tonga lost to Fiji in 2010 after leading 28-0 after 25 minutes.
Watch highlights of Harlequins’ semi-final win at Ashton Gate here…
No one can doubt the brio and defiance of a Quins team that were seventh in the table when Paul Gustard departed as DoR in January. The London club repeatedly makes light of unexpected setbacks. Mike Brown, Andre Esterhuizen and Will Evans have all been missing for lengthy spells for one reason or another, but others have stepped up to the plate.
Tyrone Green was one of five Quins players to make our Premiership Team of the Year, selected before the semi-finals, and Jack Kenningham has been magnificent since replacing the turnover king Evans. Louis Lynagh already looks like a future international.
Related content: Rugby World Premiership Team of the Year
The issue for Quins is whether they can ‘go to the well’ again one week after their record-breaking heroics. Finding the right emotional intensity is not a given, even in a final. Exeter were off by a few degrees in round 22 but fierce and firing for the semi-final and won the physical battle hands down. There was a controlled rage to their rucking and counter-rucking that Sale couldn’t live with.
Quins will need to find a way to repel the relentless carrying of the Exeter forwards and strike when half a chance presents itself. As a collective, Dombrandt, Danny Care and Marcus Smith is the best 8-9-10 axis in the Premiership. They are capable of steering Quins to their first English title since 2012 – but that doesn’t mean it’s likely. Exeter, with their bags of Twickenham experience and four British & Irish Lions in the ranks, have to be favourites.
England prop turned TV pundit Dave Flatman summed it up nicely. “Harlequins are too good, too committed to attack, not to score points. But can they contain the scoreboard?”
There has been criticism of the decision to restrict Saturday’s capacity to 10,000 fans. Rugby World adds its voice to that criticism. At a time when Wembley is preparing to admit 60,000 through the gate next week for the football, and when Wimbledon and Silverstone will shortly see capacity crowds for the tennis and motor racing, it’s idiotic nonsense to put a 10,000 limit on the 82,000-capacity home of English rugby.
A discordant note on a day that should otherwise produce a terrific spectacle and showcase the English Premiership in a hugely positive light.
- The teams have met just once before at Twickenham. Harlequins ran out 22-6 victors in ‘The Big Game’ in December 2013
- Harlequins are only the fourth fourth-placed team to reach the Premiership final. Of those, only Saracens in 2015 went on to lift the trophy
- Exeter have won their last eight league games since losing at Gloucester in round 15
- Quins’ only defeat in their last seven appearances at Twickenham in all competitions was 39-29 to London Irish in the London Double Header in 2017
- Exeter’s Sam Simmonds is the top try-scorer in this season’s Premiership, with 20. Quins duo Danny Care (12) and Alex Dombrandt (ten) are next on the list
- Marcus Smith is this year’s runaway Golden Boot winner with 278 points – 90 clear of second-placed AJ MacGinty
- Tom O’Flaherty has beaten more defenders (76) and made more metres (1,301) than anyone else in this season’s Premiership
- Exeter need two tries to register 100 in the Premiership this season. That would equal their record from the 2018-19 campaign
What’s the team news?
For Harlequins, Esterhuizen returns from suspension in the nick of time. The Springbok centre will play for the first time since March – testing his match fitness to the hilt. Ben Tapuai drops to the bench.
Other changes see James Chisholm, a try-scorer off the bench last weekend, swap with Tom Lawday and Cadan Murley start at wing following injury to Aaron Morris at Bristol.
Chiefs keep faith with the XV that started against Sale, which means Jack Nowell – excellent last weekend – retains the No 15 shirt ahead of British Lion Stuart Hogg. The Cornishman is the only player to start in all six of Exeter’s Premiership finals.
Baxter said this week that Hogg had been “very angry, very frustrated, but in all the right ways”. The Scotland captain could yet have a key role to play as a replacement.
Back-rower Capstick lines up after passing his HIA protocols after that blow from Tuilagi.
Exeter: Jack Nowell; Alex Cuthbert, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds (capt), Jack Maunder; Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Jonny Gray, Jonny Hill, Jannes Kirsten, Richard Capstick, Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Marcus Street, 19 Sean Lonsdale, 20 Don Armand, 21 Stu Townsend, 22 Harvey Skinner, 23 Stuart Hogg.
Harlequins: Tyrone Green; Louis Lynagh, Joe Marchant, Andre Esterhuizen, Caden Murley; Marcus Smith, Danny Care; Joe Marler, Scott Baldwin, Wilco Louw, Matt Symons, Stephen Lewies (capt), James Chisholm, Jack Kenningham, Alex Dombrandt.
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Santiago Garcia Botta, 18 Will Collier, 19 Dino Lamb, 20 Tom Lawday, 21 Martin Landajo, 22 Ben Tapuai, 23 Luke Northmore.
What have the coaches said?
Exeter DoR Rob Baxter: “You have to be a fool to not notice what Quins did last week. Bristol have been a good team this season and have beaten most sides, including ourselves, yet Quins made them look pretty ordinary for a good chunk of that game.
“Now we have to make sure we don’t ever look ordinary in the game and that means focusing on being the best versions of ourselves we can be.
“That is what I’ve got to hope the experience of previous finals gives us. Being the best versions of ourselves can win us games but you do have to drive it, you have to stick at it, and you do have to be able to revert to it when you do come under pressure.”
Exeter Chiefs v Harlequins kicks off on Saturday 26 March at 5.30pm at Twickenham. The match will be broadcast live on BT Sport 1, with coverage starting at 4.30pm. There will be highlights on Channel 5 from 11.25am on Sunday.
Matt Carley, who has taken charge of 107 Premiership games, becomes the seventh different referee to officiate a Premiership final.
Assisting him on the touchlines will be Luke Pearce and Karl Dickson, while Ian Tempest will oversee all things TMO from above. Shaun Gallagher is on citing officer duties.
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