Preview: Exeter Chiefs v Wasps

Date published: May 20 2016

A Premiership first awaits at Sandy Park as Exeter Chiefs appear in a semi-final for the first time, taking on familiar rivals Wasps.

Having met twice in the league and also in the Champions Cup quarter-final there’s little one side doesn’t know about the other by now, although they have both won the respect of the neutral with their thrilling rugby on attack.

As recently as last month though Wasps made the trip to Sandy Park and off the back of Jimmy Gopperth’s last-minute conversion to put them into Europe’s last four, they were comprehensively outplayed that day as Exeter produced a 24-3 victory.

Saturday’s contest should be a little tighter, but what a boost for Exeter to be at home. Sandy Park has rocked on several occasions this seasons but the Tomahawk Chop should hit a new decibel level if the Chiefs get on a roll with a trip to Twickenham on the line.

Exeter’s England contingent – Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Thomas Waldrom – often grab the headlines but it’s the hard work of the Don Armands and Gareth Steensons at the Chiefs that have made them such a well-admired club over recent season.

Wasps meanwhile will be expected to get back to this stage next season if they pull the signings of Willie le Roux and Steffon Armitage to go with Kurtley Beale.

Dai Young has said this season that his side are ahead of schedule on their road back to the top. Saturday will either back or discount that.

In team news Exeter head coach Rob Baxter has made changes to his winning formula.

Up front, Ben Moon and Luke Cowan-Dickie come into the front-row; Geoff Parling replaces the injured Damian Welch (knee) at lock; while Armand has recovered from an elbow injury and is preferred at number eight to Waldrom.

In the back division, Ian Whitten is given the nod at centre ahead of Sam Hill, while Olly Woodburn is also recalled at the expense of James Short, who drops to the bench.

Wasps meanwhile have recalled Frank Halai to the wing in place of Josh Bassett while Dan Robson and Jimmy Gopperth are the half-backs.

George Smith is back in the side at openside while Jake Cooper-Woolley and Carlo Festuccia start at tighthead prop and hooker respectively.

Players to Watch

For Exeter: His metronomic boot saw Gareth Steenson pick up the Premiership’s top points scorer award on Wednesday night in London and Exeter will be relying on their Irish number ten to once again keep the scoreboard ticking over. Part of Exeter’s rise since they joined the Premiership and in great form.

For Wasps: He missed out on the top try scorer award but Wasps may just need a moment of Christian Wade magic if they’re to cause an upset down in Devon. George Smith, Jimmy Gopperth and Charles Piutau all have vital roles to play, but Wade could prove to be the difference maker.

Head to head: The battle between Julian Salvi and George Smith whets the appetite as two Australian opensides go toe-to-toe. Elsewhere we are looking forward to seeing England’s stars of the future, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly, do battle at outside centre.

Form: The Chiefs have won their last two matches, at home to Wasps in Round 21 and inflicting a record home defeat on Harlequins a week later. Exeter’s only home loss in any competition since January 2015 came when Saracens were the visitors in Premiership Rugby in February 2016. Wasps have made it to the last four or the first time since they were champions in 2008. Wasps only defeat in the last seven rounds of Premiership Rugby came when they visited Exeter on 1st May. Wasps have participated in five previous Premiership semi-finals with their only defeat at this stage being at Sale in 2006.

Prediction: Weather and nerves providing this could be the game of the weekend. It’s hard to look past the Chiefs at home. Exeter by five.

The teams:

Exeter Chiefs: 15 Phil Dollman, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Gareth Steenson (c), 9 Will Chudley, 8 Don Armand, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Mitch Lees, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Ollie Atkins, 20 Thomas Waldrom, 21 Dave Lewis, 22 Sam Hill, 23 James Short

Wasps: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Christian Wade, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Siale Piutau, 11 Frank Halai, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 George Smith, 6 James Haskell (c), 5 Bradley Davies, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Jake Cooper-Woolley , 2 Carlo Festuccia, 1 Matt Mullan
Replacements: 16 Ashley Johnson, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Will Rowlands, 20 Sam Jones, 21 Joe Simpson, 22 Ruaridh Jackson, 23 Rob Miller

Date: Saturday, May 21
Venue: Sandy Park
Kick-off: 15:15 BST (14:15 GMT)
Referee: Greg Garner
Assistant Referees: Tom Foley, Ross Campbell
TMO: Stuart Terheege