'We should have a great game because we've got two teams that love to play ball'
Those were the words of Brian O'Driscoll as the players were readying themselves for kick-off at the Ricoh Arena. We all knew that Brian was right in his prediction however I think that it is fair to say that the ensuing 80 minutes exceeded all of our expectations.
It was one of those sporting afternoons when you felt that it was an injustice that one side had to lose for both Wasps and Exeter Chiefs were sensational. 'Super Rugby but with tackling' was The Sunday Times' Rugby Correspondent Stephen Jones' eloquent summary on social media, indeed he went on to say that it was 'one of greatest club games ever played' and over the past few decades he has witnessed thousands of such matches.
So just where do you start when assessing the most enthralling 80 minutes of the season? Should I look at the way in which Exeter steadily pushed themselves into a 24-11 lead with 20 minutes to go and the manner in which they were totally composed in the face of their first ever top flight quarter-final? Or, should I focus on the latter stages of the game and how Wasps never stopped believing that they could win? Either way the conclusions are the same, we witnessed two sides that are filled with high class talent playing the game the way that it should be played, with ambition and tempo.
"I'll be honest, it is very disappointing. But what I have said to the players is that we have to be careful of spending a lot of time dissecting all the bits and pieces and using hindsight to decide things when the reality is that if that last kick misses or we force an error in that last passage of play, we win and are over the moon and we wouldn't have played any differently. That's where I am at the moment and that's how I am dealing with it."
Rob Baxter was hurting just as much as his players but his words, and the dignified manner in which he dealt with such a cruel defeat, speaks volumes about him as an individual and about the club that epitomises so many of his characteristics. Under his tutelage we've seen players reinvigorated, young talents flourish and a side evolve season upon season. Once again Gareth Steenson was a master puppeteer at 10, how Ireland can continue to overlook him is beyond me, Jack Nowell effervesced and we saw the fruits of Michele Campagnaro's productive RBS 6 Nations. In the forwards the Chiefs' trademark driving maul delivered and the Tank Engine had a ball. The visitors played with heart and gusto, they never sat back on their laurels and continued to push until the end, for that they have to be applauded. The Chiefs may have fallen agonisingly short, they were 20 seconds shy of victory, however they remain one of the Premiership's greatest assets.
So what of the home side? Well, heading into this season Wasps always had the potential to fly; Dai Young made good signings over the summer, they had their house in order off the field and had some talented individuals in the squad that were keen to express themselves. If you looked closely the signs were there that they could flourish but it has been the impact of George Smith and Charles and Siale Piutau on the field that has taken them to another level. George leads they way with his experience and professionalism and the Piutau brothers make rugby look effortless. Over the 80 minutes on Saturday afternoon to two Piutaus made 25 carries, 207 meters and scored 2 vital tries. Elsewhere the tactical introduction of Thomas Young added fresh purpose after Haskell's immense productivity, Dan Robson had one of the best games that I've seen him play and as for Jimmy Gopperth, there's no other way of saying it, the man as balls of steel!
Exeter will now focus their attentions solely on the Aviva Premiership competition and will head to Kingsholm eager to play another game of rugby in order to start healing some of the scars left by this weekend. In defeat the Chiefs showed us again how impressive they are and why they are one of the contenders for this year's Aviva Premiership title. If you look back in history few sides sail into the latter stages of Europe at the first attempt and this year's heartbreak will fuel the Chiefs' 2016/17 European campaign and beyond.
Since moment one in this year's Champions Cup Wasps have attacked the competition with purpose and as a collective they are in their form of their lives. Wasps have such potency in attack, from 9 to 15 they house game changers and men with feet to make opponents looked stupid. Then, the men that are wearing jerseys 1 to 8 are not skilled in their specific positional role, they are also deadly in the loose, in short the threats come from all over the park. Of course next on the European road is a trip to Reading where they will face Saracens. Mark McCall's men were half asleep for some of their Champions Cup quarter-final and weren't at their best but in a little over 10 days time they will be formidable opponents and the stage will be set for another European classic.
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