LONDON (Reuters) - Ten years after climbing out of the second tier of English rugby, Exeter are one win away from being crowned the best team in Europe, and all the stars seem to be aligning for them ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup final against Racing 92.
If a club could have plotted the perfect build-up for the biggest game in their history, then Exeter have had it, while across the channel Racing’s preparations for a first title after two final defeats have been something of a disaster.
Since the return from lockdown Exeter coach Rob Baxter has steered a careful route through the back end of the Premiership, resting his big names when needed, but getting his best team on the field often enough to keep the wheels oiled.
They have reached their fifth successive Premiership final with relative ease and got past Northampton and Toulouse to make the European showpiece.
Exeter have a relatively clean bill of health on the injury front and, though there will be no fans present, have only a 90- mile journey to Bristol for the final.
Racing, on the other hand, could not have had it tougher.
After an excellent performance to beat defending champions Saracens in the semi-final, things quickly went downhill.
A series of positive COVID-19 tests caused the postponement of their Top 14 match against La Rochelle. The healthy players were forced to train at home and in small pods and they fielded something of a scratch side against Toulouse last week, losing 30-24.
“Obviously, it’s not an ideal way to prepare for a final,” the club’s Scotland flyhalf Finn Russell told the Mail on Sunday.
“It looks like we’re going to get into a hotel so we can get some full training days together then fly over on a chartered flight in the week.”
It was Russell’s insightful chip to Virimi Vakatawa that opened the way for Juan Imhoff to score the late try that beat Saracens in the semi-final.
That run took Vakatawa’s tally of defenders beaten in the competition this season to 48 - 19 more than any other player.
“We know our attacking kicking game works and it’s hard for teams to defend against,” Russell said. “I’ll back myself to make that kick, no matter what the time or scoreline.”
Exeter might not have the individual spark that Russell brings but Stuart Hogg and Henry Slade add class and evasive running to the backline, while flyhalf Joe Simmonds is a high-quality distributor and deadly goalkicker with a remarkable 34 successes from 36 attempts in Europe this season.
Their point of difference, however, remains their seemingly unstoppable ability to rumble the pack over the line once they sniff blood in the red zone.
Better defences than Racing’s have tried and failed to keep them at bay and the outcome of the match could depend largely on the French team keeping their discipline to limit the penalty opportunities on which the upstart European fledglings thrive.
The man who has spent much of the last 12 years putting those kicks into the corner is now playing second-fiddle to Simmonds, but 36-year-old Gareth Steenson, who will leave Sandy Park after the final, is torn between pinching himself at the club’s progress and worrying about coming up short in back-to-back finals.
“I didn’t think I would see these days,” said Steenson, whose first two years at Exeter were spent battling to get out of the Championship. “But we could be sitting here in two weeks’ time with nothing. We could be the most disappointed team in England.”
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.