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The Verdict: There won’t be an asterisk next to this team

It was the season that would never end we thought and the final nobody really expected to witness – but Exeter duly claimed a wonderful European and Premiership double at a sodden Twickenham where the rain, torrential rain, bounced off the empty seats.

Back home, however, we were all cheering both sides because Wasps could easily have nicked this one and produced a heroic defensive  performance after the most difficult of fortnights, but most of the accolades and plaudits go to Exeter after their season of all seasons.

They join a very select group of English clubs who have achieved the double – Leicester (twice), Wasps and Saracens. That is the elite territory they are now entering and the exciting thing for Exeter fans is that their team are still relatively young and can get much better.

Their fresh-faced captain Joe Simmonds is only 23 for heaven’s sake and now takes his place alongside the veteran hairy-arsed trio of Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Brad Barritt as a double winning captain!

The likes of Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds, Sam Skinner and Luke Cowan-Dickie have only just got going; Scottish superstars Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray – the latter played a brilliant hand off the bench – are just getting their feet under the table and Sam Maunder looks young enough to still need ID in pubs.

Henry Slade is entering his pomp as the classiest of midfield operators, Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams are looking to kick on as props after patiently learning their craft and only recently has Dave Ewers worked out how to fully utilise his extraordinary man strength.

Exeter are on a roll. We could be entering a period of dominance that we have only seen before in this country with Leicester and Bath of old. We don’t have a Super Rugby- Champions Cup match this year, they called it off after the first round of fixtures, but on this form I would back the Chiefs against last year’s champions the Crusaders.

It’s not just their talent and ability, Exeter have developed a winning mindset and an enviable esprit de corps. In these sensitive modern times they had to bow to public sentiment mid-season and cease commercialisation of their Chiefs nickname but have no doubt, Exeter are warriors in their own right.

For Exeter this never-ending Premiership season began 53 weeks ago when they scraped past Quins and then lost their next game at Bath which gave rise to a minor alarm before they steadied the ship and the results began to come.

England players also returned from Japan as did Scotland’s Stuart Hogg who found, by way of a warm Devon welcome, that his locker had been draped in Japan flags in memory of the Brave Blossom’s wonderful victory over the Scots. Soon after came the news of the Saracens salary cap breach and relegation while many fans insisted that the two Premiership titles that Sarries won against Exeter during the years concerned should be handed instead to the Chiefs.

The regulations made no allowance for that whatsoever –not that such trifles usually stop Premiership Rugby from making stuff up on the hoof – and for a while there were some bellicose words coming out of the Exeter camp about the missing silverware.

Chairman Tony Rowe nearly imploded with rage but I was never wholly convinced at the anger emanating from the players and coaching staff. Whatever the circumstances  the players knew they had been beaten in the games concerned and very quickly they turned their ire to constructive use. It became the engine which underpinned their assault on the double.

Time to make their own history that nobody could dispute, that would never have an asterisk attached to it in the record books.

Saturday’s finale was no thing of beauty, the biblical rain made sure of that and to these eyes Exeter enjoyed a significant rub of the green five minutes from time when Wasps were marching their way inexorably to the try line with an irresistible and beautifully organised rolling maul from a lineout when Jack Yeandle deliberately collapsed it.

Incredibly he only copped a penalty instead of the yellow it clearly deserved and frankly, save for his intervention, I fail to see how Wasps would not have scored their second try of the game.

The real wonder though was that we had a final at all and although Premiership Rugby have, rightly, taken some stick it would be remiss not to doff a cap to those responsible for devising an exit strategy for the 2019-20 season and to give us worthy champions. 

It’s taken a lot of fine detail, patience, intricate logistics, a little luck and the compliance of all the players involved.

We only have to consider for a minute the debacle of a handful of Barbarians, some of them normally the most responsible of citizens, going AWOL and off message in midweek to appreciate what a huge ‘buy-in’ has been required by the 12 Premiership clubs to complete the remaining nine rounds of matches and then the play-offs and finals. 

It has been a fraught process and that sense of walking a tightrope continued to the end with the untimely outbreaks of covid positives.

First came Sale who were not allowed to play their final-round Premiership match and then Wasps, who learned they would be allowed to contest the final only at 2.30am on Wednesday morning when Lee Blackett was emailed the results of the final set of tests.

Preparations against adversity: Wasps head coach Lee Blackett had to contend with only two training sessions in the lead up to the Premiership final. Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images

No more positives, Wasps could go to the ball even if they would be without a number of regular starters such as Kieran Brookes, Simon McIntyre and Brad Shields.

Being able to manage just two team training sessions in two weeks was as big an inconvenience but in these strange times everybody is learning to adapt and Wasps didn’t kick up a fuss.

One routine they clearly mastered to perfection was defending Exeter’s famed line-out rumbles and pick and goes on the line. Nobody has coped better this season.

Above all else they got to play the final and push Exeter all the way.

For the time being they will settle for that but this is another group with much more to come. I rather fancy this is going to become the big domestic rivalry of the next four or five years.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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