LONDON (Reuters) – Exeter spent years as the battling underdogs operating in Saracens’ shadow but now find themselves as the big beast hoping to suppress the upstarts of Harlequins in English rugby’s Premiership final at Twickenham on Saturday.
Even before Saracens’ salary-cap fall from grace, Exeter had established themselves as the country’s best team, underlined by their Premiership/European Cup double last season.
This is their sixth successive Premiership final, where they will be seeking their third title, whereas Quins are in the showpiece for the first time since a solitary triumph in 2012.
Trying to predict the outcome of the final looks like a waste of time on the back of last week’s semis, particularly Harlequins’ extraordinary 43-36 extra time victory over Bristol where they came from 28-0 down after 30 minutes.
Exeter were also pushed all the way by Sale, before eventually coming home 40-30, leaving director of rugby Rob Baxter well aware of the this week’s challenge.
“Those Harlequins players had a great second half, it was a fantastic game of rugby,” he said.
“My biggest concern is that we conceded 30 points, and that makes you think about what we will have to defend against on Saturday. Hopefully we can keep the ball and nullify their threat.”
As Bristol found, that is easier said than done.
Harlequins’ turnaround since they sacked head coach Paul Gustard in January has been astonishing and, much to their fans’ delight, it has been brought about largely due to a commitment to attack at every opportunity.
Before the former England defence coach’s departure Quins were going nowhere, having won two of seven games while scoring an average of 21 points per match. Since then the tally is 13 wins from 18, scoring almost 35 points per match.
The flip in fortunes has taken place without a head coach in place as a four-man group of Adam Jones, Nick Evans, Jerry Flannery and Charlie Mulchrone have led by committee.
It is similarly democratic on the pitch, as the likes of Danny Care and Joe Marler bring experience and calm, alongside the on-pitch direction from flyhalf Marcus Smith.
The 22-year-old has quickly developed a remarkable all-court game that should put him in line for an England call up for the summer Tests in the absence of Owen Farrell and George Ford.
Exeter, however, are not in the business of sitting back to admire the work of their rivals and in Joe Simmonds they have their own match-winning flyhalf.
Not as flamboyant as Smith, Simmonds has nevertheless become a master controller with ice in his veins who, at 24, already has a stack of big-game experience under his belt
“I love games like this and I love coming up against the likes of Marcus,” he said this week.
“I know personally I have to be right up there on my A game because I know Marcus will be. It’s an exciting opportunity, I’m looking forward to being out there against him.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris)