* Steenson penalty secures 23-20 victory with shootout looming
* First title for Exeter seven years after joining top flight (Adds detail, quotes)
By Mitch Phillips
LONDON, May 27 (Reuters) - Exeter Chiefs were crowned English rugby’s Premiership champions for the first time on Saturday when veteran flyhalf Gareth Steenson landed a nerveless penalty three minutes from the end of extra time to beat Wasps 23-20 in an epic Twickenham final.
Exeter, beaten in the final by Saracens last year, had led 14-3 only for Wasps to score 17 unanswered points and lead 20-14 midway through the second half.
A late Steenson penalty took the game to extra time and with both teams flagging on a hot afternoon, nearly 80,000 fans were bracing themselves for a drop-goal shootout before Exeter forced a scrum penalty.
It was fitting that Steenson, who has been at the south-west club for a decade as they climbed from second-tier also-rans to title challengers, was the man to settle it and the travelling fans exploded when he calmly split the posts.
It was heartbreak for Wasps, who had topped the standings during the regular season and who had not lost in their last 10 final appearances.
But few neutrals would begrudge Exeter their moment in the sun, particularly Rob Baxter, who spent 14 years at the club as a player and another eight as head coach.
Exeter chairman Tony Rowe said: ”Coming here last year and losing I know the pain, but I‘m very pleased today. “It is awesome. It was done on a seven year plan so we’re actually on time - but with five minutes to go I didn’t think we would do it.”
Exeter enjoyed the best of the first half and scored the first two tries.
Lions-bound wing Jack Nowell got the first, breaking into space after a lineout for a score that validated those who have questioned Wasps’ defence while fullback Phil Dollman added the second – his first of the season - after great work by centre Ollie Devoto.
There had been precious little sign of Wasps’ exciting attacking game but they eventually hit their stride with some great passing under pressure to send Jimmy Gopperth over and reduce the halftime deficit to 14-10.
Within four minutes of the restart Wasps were three points ahead as impressive number eight Nathan Hughes forced a turnover then blasted through three tackles before Christian Wade’s kick bounced beautifully into the arms of Elliot Daly who gleefully dived over the line.
A Gopperth penalty made it 20-14 to Wasps as Exeter had struggled to make any impact. However, they regrouped to trim the lead to 20-17 with a Steenson penalty and then, after a remarkable 34-phase attack, earned another penalty with 12 minutes to go.
The Chiefs opted against a virtually guaranteed three points and instead went for the scrum, and did the same minutes later as the clock ticked down and it looked like poor decisions when Wasps forced a turnover.
However, with two minutes to go, they were given a lifeline when Hughes was penalised for handling in a ruck and Steenson took the game to extra time for the second time since the playoffs were introduced in the 2002/03 season.
The breathless finale was hardly unexpected after both teams had clinched their semi-finals with last-gasp scores but looked a hammer blow for Wasps, who had ended the regular season top of the standings and top try-scorers.
With the sun beating down and the players visibly wilting, the first 10 minute half was scoreless but Exeter upped the ante in the second and battered at the line relentlessly before finally earning a shot at goal which Steenson, fittingly, slotted home.
“We backed ourselves on our fitness, we don’t work so hard to give up on 80 minutes, we knew Wasps would be great today, but we knew we’d go beyond 80 minutes,” said Nowell, who now travels to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions.
“We went through it last year, went through that, know how it feels.”
Wasps captain Joe Launchbury said it was “agony.”
“We were happy how we came back into the game,” he said.
“We felt in the extra-time we had enough but the pressure told in the end.”
Editing by Rex Gowar