After trailing by 10 points early in the second half, they came back strongly to narrow the gap to four points. They came close to snatching a dramatic late victory, before a last-minute penalty try took Exeter to next week’s final.
Exeter kicked off with an appreciable breeze in their favour and rain falling steadily. Three minutes of constant possession for the home side led to the opening score of the game when Gareth Steenson landed a 30-metre penalty, following a Wasps offence at the breakdown.
Exeter continued to dominate possession, with the Wasps defence working hard to deny them any openings, and skipper James Haskell putting in some powerful tackles. In the 11th minute, following a Wasps knock-on, Exeter won a penalty at a scrum in midfield, 12 metres inside the Wasps half. Steenson was again on target, to double his side’s lead.
Four minutes later, Wasps finally set up an attacking position, following a breakdown penalty, deep inside their own half. Jimmy Gopperth’s kick found touch just outside the 22, but Carlo Festuccia’s throw was blown off course by the strong wind. A minute later, the Wasps hooker found the target at another lineout, 15 metres out. A well-controlled drive rumbled towards the line and it was Festuccia who had the final touch for a well-worked try, his first of the season. Jimmy Gopperth’s fine kick into the wind, gave Wasps a one-point lead, with 18 minutes gone.
Exeter came close to re-gaining the lead, when Jack Nowell was sent clear down the right, but Frank Halai’s last-ditch tackled knocked him into touch as he went over in the corner. A minute later, it was an incisive run by Nowell which broke the Wasps line and set up the possession from which Ian Whitten burrowed his way over, near the posts. Steenson landed the conversion, to make the score 13-7.
Wasps then began to find some continuity, and put together some controlled passages of play, without seriously threatening to find a way through. Nine minutes before the break, George Smith broke from a lineout and fed Nathan Hughes. His quick pass sent Frank Halai through a gap. James Haskell carried on the attack, before another Hughes charge took play to within a few metres. Dan Robson picked up and slipped through a gap to go over near the posts. Gopperth’s conversion put Wasps back in front.
Robson’s superb blindside break from inside his own half then set up another opportunity for Wasps. He passed to Christian Wade but the defence was able to get across to bring him down just outside the 22.
When the ball was moved inside, Wasps lost possession in contact and Exeter counterattacked from deep, before sending a long kick downfield. Frank Halai went back to cover, but chose to take the ball into contact.
Exeter turned over possession and Don Armand gathered to go over in the corner. Fortunately for Wasps, the TMO ruled that Jack Nowell had knocked on at the breakdown and the score was ruled out.
Exeter then won a series of penalties near the Wasps line and sent each one into the corner. The third resulted in a penalty try and Steenson converted, to put his side back in front, by 20 points to 14, inside the final minute of the half. To compound the blow, Carlo Festuccia was shown a yellow card.
Frustratingly for Wasps, the wind eased during the interval. With Festuccia in the sin bin, Wasps sent Ashley Johnson on for the first scrum of the second half. Frank Halai was the man to make way for the replacement hooker. Almost immediately, Wasps won a scrum penalty, directly in front of the Exeter posts and Jimmy Gopperth landed the straightforward kick, to narrow the gap to three points, at 20-17.
Two minutes later, after Exeter did well to gather their own restart, a series of pick and drives took play up to the Wasps line and Dave Ewers powered his way over the line. Steenson’s conversion stretched the lead to ten points, with eight minutes of the half played.
With Wasps back to fifteen players and Ashley Johnson staying on the field, another strong scrum earned them a penalty, inside the Exeter 22, fifteen metres in from the right touchline and Jimmy Gopperth made no mistake, to reduce the deficit to seven points.
On the hour, Matt Mullan was replaced by Simon McIntyre. The next scrum produced a penalty for Wasps, just inside the Exeter half. Jimmy Gopperth went for the corner, but the touch judge signalled for touch in goal. A minute later, Gopperth found touch in the same corner, but the lineout was driven back and Exeter won a crucial turnover. Almost immediately, Wasps won another penalty, on the 22. Gopperth’s kick, from in front of the posts, made the score 27-23, with 12 minutes left.
Joe Simpson and Sam Jones replaced Dan Robson and Nathan Hughes. Both replacements were involved in a Wasps attack, which came tantalisingly close to breaking the defence, before Jones’s offload was knocked on by Ashley Johnson, with an overlap outside him. Five minutes from time, after a fine run by Jimmy
Gopperth, Johnson tried to kick to the unmarked Christian Wade, but his kick was gathered by Olly Woodburn.
With just over two minutes left, Exeter won a penalty inside the Wasps half and Slade found touch near the right corner. The drive was stopped, but the home side won the put-in to the scrum and a powerful shove won them a penalty try to decide the match. Steenson’s conversion made the final score 34-23, to earn Exeter their first ever Premiership final, where they will take on Saracens.
A disappointing end to the season for Wasps, but they can look back with pride on a memorable campaign, in which they reached two semi-finals and finished top of probably the toughest European pool ever. A season to remember without doubt.