Exeter Chiefs pulled off the biggest victory of their history in booking their place in the Premiership Final and Rob Baxter is delighted to get a crack at European champions Saracens at Twickenham.
Fresh from their victory over Racing 92 in Lyon, Saracens put Leicester Tigers to the sword in the first semi-final, before Chiefs joined them in a much tighter affair at Sandy Park against Wasps.
It took until the final play of the game for Exeter to finally secure their place at Twickenham, a second penalty try of the game sealing a 34-23 win over a battling Wasps side.
Chiefs have lost both encounters with Saracens this season, including their only home loss of the campaign, but Baxter is relishing the opportunity to spring another surprise in a maiden Premiership Final.
“If someone said to me was there one team you would want to play in the final, you would have to say Saracens this season,” he said.
“They’ve been the stand-out the side, they finished top of the Premiership, they are the best team in Europe.
“If you are going to win the Premiership, let’s go against a good side. Let’s go against Saracens.
“It feels very good. It was a hell of a game.
“Neither team really got away from each other for most of the game, but I think we showed enough qualities over the course of the 80 minutes to deserve the win.
“We have been challenging the players the last four or five weeks to say to them this is the time of the season where they have got to take hold of it, especially the senior players.
“The lads who played have made a name for themselves. They are a little bit further up the ladder than they were before, and the club is a little bit further up the ladder.
“What we need to remember about this club is what gives us the backbone and the foundations we’ve got is that we had to spend a lot of time being tough and dealing with being second and not winning everything, and saying that one day we wanted to be a very successful rugby club.
“This won’t feel like a shock to the players. It will feel like the next step they wanted to take.”
In appalling conditions both teams showed intent to play some rugby, with Chiefs leading early through two Gareth Steenson penalties.
Carlo Festuccia and Dan Robson both crossed for Wasps in the first half, but Exeter responded through Ian Whitten and a penalty effort to lead 20-14 at the break.
Dave Ewers’ try early in the second half stretched that lead further, and though Wasps got back to within four heading into the final stages, a last big scrum sealed the win.
It marks the end of a promising season for Wasps, who have fallen in the semi-finals both in Europe and domestically and director of rugby Dai Young admits his team weren’t quite clinical enough.
“We knew they (Exeter) are a good team, and they proved that,” said Young.
“They were a little bit more clinical when they had opportunities.
“No complaints. The two teams in the final have been the first and second-best teams throughout the season. It’s a great final.
“Where we’ve come from after last season – there is lots to improve, without a shadow of doubt – I am really proud of the players. We want to be in the latter stages of competitions.
“You have only got to look at Saracens in Europe. Sometimes, you have got to keep knocking that door, and it might be a year or two before it opens, but in the end it will open.
“We have got to make sure we stick in there.”