LONDON (Reuters) - Exeter can cap their remarkable rise through the rugby ranks by securing their maiden English Premiership title on Saturday but they will need to be at their defensive best to counter the threat of a Wasps team hoping to roll back the years.
When Wasps were winning European and domestic titles almost at will a decade ago with the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey and Rob Howley in their ranks, Exeter were in the second tier and still playing at their cramped old County Ground.
After moving to their new Sandy Park home they eventually gained promotion to the Premiership in 2010 and, under the expert guidance of coach Rob Baxter, have been on an upward trajectory ever since.
They reached the Premiership final last year, having beaten Wasps in the semis, and though they lost to Saracens they gained revenge this season by beating the newly-crowned European Champions with a thrilling stoppage-time try in the semi-final.
That stretched their unbeaten Premiership run to 16 games - one short of Leicester’s record set from 1999-2000 - and now they are approaching the final with something of a changed mindset.
“We’re in a much different place,” said flyhalf Gareth Steenson, who has been with the club since 2008.
“Maybe last year we were just happy to be in that final. It was our first experience of a day like that. A lot of people say you have to go through finals and lose them to put yourself in good positions. We’ve talked a lot about building and being champions this year.”
England hot winger Jack Nowell is the eye-catching cutting edge of Exeter’s attack but their success is built on solidity and solidarity and they are a classic example of a team possibly being stronger than the sum of its parts and are playing with real belief.
As are Wasps, who also needed a last-gasp try to break down an obdurate Leicester in their semi-final.
Wasps lost their way for a while after their success under Warrant Gatland but, rejuvenated after their relocation from London to Coventry, they have developed a team playing eye-catching rugby which was good enough for them to top the standings in the regular season.
There are question-marks over their defence but none over their attack, a point underlined by all the player-of-the-year awards raining down on flyhalf/centre Jimmy Gopperth and all the tries - a record-equalling 17 so far this season - being scored by winger Christian Wade.
They are potentially without injured back Kurtley Beale but with replacement Josh Bassett the man who scored the 78th-minute semi-final-winning try, they still look potent.
”The plan is not to kick unless it’s necessary,“ said coach Dai Young. ”That’s in our DNA anyway since our first option is always to look to run.
“We’ve scored more tries than anyone else in the league so there’s no reason we can’t keep scoring them against Exeter.”
Now Wasps are in the final they will take some stopping, having won all 10 they have contested in all competitions since 1998 - including four Premierships - though the last of those came in 2008.
Editing by Andrew Heavens