Premiership final: A tale of two clubs

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It is nine years since Lawrence Dallaglio hoisted the Aviva Premiership trophy at Twickenham to bring to an end not only his illustrious career but ultimately, Wasps’ era of dominance too.

Many of the 81,600 fans in attendance would have expected the champions to return to English rugby’s showpiece game much sooner than they have done.

Wasps won four league titles between 2003 and 2008, and although the likes of Dallaglio and Raphael Ibanez were coming to the end of their playing days, there was enough young talent to suggest the club had a bright future.

It was a slightly different story back then for Exeter. The idea of competing with the likes of Wasps for silverware at English rugby’s HQ would have seemed like a distant dream in the summer of 2008.

The Chiefs had just finished second in the Championship, 27 points adrift of runaway champions Northampton. The club had ambition but it hadn’t yet found its way into the big time.

A lot has happened at both clubs over the intervening nine years, and ahead of their meeting at Twickenham ESPN looks at some of the key points on their path to the final.

2009 – Change at the top

Wasps celebrate their victory in the 2008 Premiership final. Clive Mason/Getty Images

As Wasps note on their own website, all good things must come to an end, and the 2008-09 season was one of decline for the champions.

The tone was set for their title defence with a 26-14 defeat to London Irish at Twickenham on the opening day of the season. Wasps would lose six of their first seven games and eventually limped home seventh.

Sir Ian McGeechan — who combined his club duties with his role as British & Irish Lions head coach for the 2009 tour of South Africa — paid for the trophy-less season with his job, and was replaced by Tony Hanks for the 2009-10 season.

Like Wasps, Exeter also underwent a change in management towards the end of the 2008-09 season as director of rugby Pete Drewett lost his job following a damaging defeat to Moseley dented their hopes of promotion.

Former captain Rob Baxter was tasked with working alongside Robin Cowling for the remainder of the season, and the pair led the Chiefs to another second-place finish. Baxter had impressed, though, and was handed the reins on a permanent basis in the summer.

2010 – Chiefs make it big

Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson is mobbed by a fan after sealing promotion to the Premiership with Exeter in 2010. Stephen Pond – EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

The decision to give Baxter the job full-time paid almost immediate dividends as he guided his beloved club to promotion at the first time of asking.

Ironically, the Chiefs would again finish the season second in the Championship table but took full advantage of the new playoff system to beat Bristol emphatically over two legs.

The first leg of the final highlighted the potential for a Premiership side in the south west of England, as over 10,000 fans packed into Sandy Park.

Wasps, meanwhile, enjoyed a welcome return to the Premiership top six — and thus qualification for the Heineken Cup — but missed out on the playoffs on the last day of the season.

2012 – Contrasting fortunes

Joe Launchbury, left, in action against Newcastle on the final day of the 2011-12 season. Tom Shaw/Getty Images

Wasps flirted with relegation, and financial oblivion, during a turbulent 2011-12 season. Dai Young had been appointed director of rugby in the summer but despite winning his opening two Premiership matches — against Saracens and Leicester — he was unable to maintain that form.

And as the club hurtled towards the precipice off the field — the club reportedly had just £65.16 in their account at one stage — the situation on it was no less dire.

However, a losing bonus point picked up on the final day against bottom club Newcastle secured salvation and the club set about building on that momentum almost immediately.

A consortium emerged that bought out former owner Steve Hayes and started the search for a stadium they could call their own. Some sensible recruitment on the pitch saw Ashley Johnson, Stephen Jones and James Haskell bolster the playing ranks too.

Exeter’s remarkable rise continued apace, meanwhile, as they qualified for the European Cup for the first time thanks to a fifth-placed finish.

The future looked rosy too as the likes of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Hill and Jack Nowell made their debuts during the season. The club’s ambition was highlighted in the summer as Australia international Dean Mumm was signed.

2014 – Chiefs collect some silverware

Exeter Chiefs players celebrate their Anglo-Welsh Cup win over Northampton. Tom Dulat/Getty Images

The Anglo-Welsh Cup might not be high on most rugby fans’ wishlist but Exeter’s triumph in the 2014 final was rich reward for the hard work put it in at the club over the previous decade.

Along with the trophy also came a suggestion that the Chiefs were here to stay. They would finish outside of the Premiership top six for the first season in three, but reacted to that with some more astute recruitment as Thomas Waldrom joined from Leicester.

Wasps would finish one place above them thanks to the four extra bonus points they had amassed over the season, and thus secured a place in a one-off playoff for a spot in the inaugural season of the Champions Cup.

It was an opportunity they would not pass up, beating Stade Francais home and away to take their place at Europe’s top table.

2014-15 – Wasps are sent to Coventry

Wasps’ move to Coventry helped to make them one of the wealthiest clubs in Europe. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Wasps might have been saved from the threat of extinction in 2012 but they continued to haemorrhage money — around £3 million per season — while they played in a stadium they didn’t own.

At the start of the 2014-15 season it was confirmed that the club would move 64 miles north, from their Adams Park base in High Wycombe to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.

It was a decision that initially caused consternation among the club’s fans but has proved vital to Wasps’ future success, on and off the pitch. 28,254 fans turned up for the club’s first game at their new home on Dec. 21, 2014 and the increase in revenue from the ground has helped transform the club’s financial might.

Their standing as one of the richest clubs in Europe was confirmed last summer when Danny Cipriani returned to the club, alongside marquee acquisitions Kurtley Beale and Willie Le Roux.

That financial clout didn’t help Wasps finish above Saturday’s opponents in 2015 though, as Exeter finished a place ahead of them in fifth — missing out on the playoffs on points difference.

2017 – Who will come out on top?

Exeter and Wasps will arrive at Twickenham on Saturday safe in the knowledge that they are the Premiership’s two best sides.

They finished the season neck and neck on 84 points, with Wasps taking top spot by virtue of winning more games throughout the campaign. Indeed, the two sides couldn’t be separated when they met at Sandy Park in February, playing out an entertaining 10-try 35-35 draw.

It should be a cracker as Exeter’s careful, methodical planning comes up against a fallen giant of the 2000s that has got on its feet with the help of a well-timed change of address.

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