It’s been over a year since the 2019/20 Premiership kicked off, with all but one of those opening day fixtures in October 2019 being decided by a margin of eight points or fewer. An intriguing season was in prospect with Bristol’s big win over Bath setting their stall out early, whilst elsewhere Exeter snuck past Quins, Wasps lost to newly-promoted London Irish and Saracens got pipped by Saints. At that stage most still expected another two-horse race between Saracens and Exeter with maybe Bristol starting to flex their muscles and provide an outside threat.
Wasps’ inauspicious start would continue until Christmas. Indeed, up until the festive season they had won just one of their opening six league matches, their worst start to a season since their start as defending champions in 2008/09 when they won just one of their first seven matches.
Reversal Of Fortune
This year’s turnaround happened the day after Boxing Day though, as a late Nizaam Carr try sealed a bonus-point win against Bristol. A change of Head Coach in February, as Lee Blackett replaced Dai Young, led to further gains and coming into this final Wasps have now won 12 of their last 13 games, averaging over five tries and 40 points per match across those victories.
Until a late streak of three losses after they’d already secured a home semi-final, Exeter have been in imperious form throughout the season. Their victory over Racing 92 in the Heineken Champions Cup last weekend means they are on the hunt for a rare double. Win on Saturday and they’d join an exclusive club – only Leicester (2000/01 & 2001/02), Wasps (2003/04) and Saracens (2015/16 & 2018/19) have won both the European Cup and Premiership Trophy in the same season.
Since Wasps moved to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, their brand of rugby has been founded on an entertaining and high-risk attacking game plan, powered by a mix of world-class international talent and home-grown superstars. When it comes off – and their defence holds up – it is scintillating to watch.
Keeping that defence watertight has proved their Achilles heel this term. Their recent run of success has seen their attack firing on all cylinders but, most notably, it has seen their defensive flood barriers hold out, most evident in their comprehensive semi-final win against one of the most potent attacking threats in the league, Bristol Bears.
Across the entire season, these two sides have proven themselves as the best attacking outfits in the league, averaging almost four tries per game apiece. They have also been extremely clinical in taking any points on offer, with the two-best goal-kicking rates in the competition. Exeter’s remarkable kick success rate of 88% is the best ever recorded by Opta (since 2010/11), beating their record from 2018/19 (86%).
That clinical nature of attack can be further seen in their ability to convert visits into the opposition 22 into points. Saracens and Sale both averaged more visits per game, but Wasps and Exeter were markedly more lethal at their conversion rate, both averaging nearly three points per visit.
Somewhat surprisingly, Exeter have not excelled at the set-piece this season, and in fact, their scrum success rate is the lowest in the league. Wasps meanwhile have been consistent in all the set-piece facets as well as the ruck.
Strength In Depth
It has undoubtedly been a challenging season for all the clubs due to the impact of Covid-19, especially since the restart. Squads have been stretched and the management of that rotation has played a key role in the race for the play-offs.
Throughout the campaign, only London Irish and Worcester averaged more tackles per game than Exeter, so you might think this extra workload in defence could start to take its toll. However Exeter have used 63 different players – only a struggling Leicester (64) have used more – and despite tallying the most total tackles of any side, only one Exeter player features in the top 20 tacklers across 2019/20 (Sam Simmonds). This shared workload could mean they are not as exhausted as you might expect. Having said that, the Chiefs have had three knockout games in Europe on top of that to throw into the mix, while Wasps wisely ducked out at the group stage of the Challenge Cup.
Wasps conversely have used just 51 different players during their Premiership campaign (3rd fewest), so if you were to crudely average out the number of tackles made per player used over the season, it would be almost identical across the two finalists (Wasps 51.5, Exeter 52).
Both squads are packed full of top quality players but if you had to pick out one matchup that could shape the game it would most likely be the back-row battle between Sam Simmonds and Jack Willis. Simmonds has been on the main stage for a few seasons now and has seven England caps to his name. Willis, however, has had a breakthrough season, grabbing headlines in almost every round. The two of them are arguably the most in-form back-row players in England at the moment, and it is their all-round abilities that sets them apart.
Willis has won a remarkable (and record-breaking) 44 turnovers this season, 25 more than any other player. 39 of those 44 are his specialist ‘jackal’ turnovers, pilfering the ball at the breakdown. But his attacking stats are just as impressive and together with rival Simmonds, they are two of the most impactful forwards with ball-in-hand this season. With 19 tries between them, 90 defenders beaten, 30 clean breaks and 1,226 metres gained, they have been almost unstoppable.
Where Simmonds does have a more noticeable advantage over Willis is in defence and discipline. His 94% tackle success is hugely impressive and nine percentage points better than Willis. The Wasps man has also conceded 26 penalties this season, down in large part to his high-risk technique to steal the ball at the breakdown. With Sam’s brother Joe having such a deadly boot, Willis will have to be extremely careful to stay on the right side of the referee and not let the Chiefs get ‘easy’ points. Whichever way this game goes, the likelihood of one of these players picking up the man-of-the-match award is highly likely.
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