It’s an odd situation whereby a team is preparing, as an underdog, for a home semi-final against a team that finished below them in the league, but that is exactly the scenario that is currently facing Exeter Chiefs.
After an indifferent start to the season, Rob Baxter’s men have been on a charge in the Premiership, winning 13 of their last 15 games, with draws against Wasps and Saracens all that blight their almost perfect record.
In fact, Exeter have not tasted defeat at Sandy Park since December 11, when Bordeaux-Bègles came to town, whilst that record in the Premiership stretches back even further to October 30, when West Country rivals Bath were enjoying a rich vein of form and snuck one down in Devon.
Now, Saracens head south-west in a rematch of last season’s Premiership final and the recent retainers of the Champions Cup go there as strong favourites, but if any side is capable of denying the North Londoners their back-to-back “double”, it’s Exeter.
The Chiefs have been making considerable progress this season and although Saracens’ visit to Sandy Park in the early stages of the competition resulted in a comfortable 34-13 victory for the visitors – Exeter’s largest defeat in the Premiership this season – that was an Exeter side struggling for identity and chemistry.
Having made it all the way to the Premiership final last season, Exeter’s strengths of a consistent lineout, strong driving maul, solid defence and effective one-out runners all played into Saracens’ hands and whilst it looked a close and competitive final by the scoreline, it was one which the Londoners had won by half-time.
Going into this campaign, there has been a clear switch in philosophy from Baxter and his side.
Henry Slade has been used much more frequently at fly-half, rather than the outside centre berth he occupied last season, whilst Ollie Devoto was brought in from Bath to offer the option of a more adept ball-handler at inside centre.
It is a move which has seen Exeter play with more width and tempo than they did last season and has correlated with wings Olly Woodburn and James Short having career seasons, as well as Jack Nowell receiving a call-up for the British and Irish Lions. Perennially underrated utility backs Ian Whitten and Phil Dollman have also shone in the evolving system.
Teething troubles with this new style of play contributed heavily to that early season defeat at home to Saracens and it is a much different, much more balanced Exeter side that Mark McCall and his charges will have to contend with on Saturday.
Exeter have accounted for the second most points and tries in the Premiership this season and though they sit slightly behind Wasps in both categories, they have more try bonus points than the side from Coventry.
There have been only seven Premiership games this season when Exeter have been held to less than four tries and they have shown a variety and ability to adapt that has seen them conquer all conditions. There is no element of a “flat-track bully” to this Chiefs attack. They have consistently troubled defences, good and bad, all season.
Admittedly, two of those seven games where Exeter were held to less than four tries came against Saracens, but it is a more potent attack now than when Exeter last welcomed the champions to Sandy Park.
That meeting of Exeter’s attack and Saracens’ defence inevitably draws the eye but it is the contest between their counterparts, Exeter’s defence and Saracens’ attack, which is potentially even more important if Exeter want to spring an upset.
For all the development Exeter have made as an attacking side this season, their defence has been surprisingly porous. They have conceded 55 tries – just one shy of double Saracens’ 28 – and it’s something Saracens will look to exploit, especially coming off the back of their morale-boosting win over Clermont.
One thing that European final will have reinforced for Baxter and Exeter is the opportunity they have of disrupting their opposition at the breakdown. Saracens rarely commit men at defensive breakdowns – unless the ball is clearly there to be stolen – and have a similar low-quantity, high-efficiency approach to attacking breakdowns and this is something Fritz Lee enjoyed exploiting at Murrayfield.
This is the bread and butter of Julian Salvi’s game and if the referee on Saturday adjudicates the contact area as heavily in favour of the defending side as Nigel Owens did, it is a big advantage in Exeter’s favour.
Not only is it a source of points if penalties can be won within kicking distance, but it is also the best way of trying to disrupt the territorial dominance that Saracens will look to exert on Exeter.
The success that the lineout has, that the goalkicker has and that the other Exeter Chiefs have at the breakdown will all play into how decisive any advantage Salvi can unearth will be, but he is key to giving them the foundation from which they can switch pitch position and keep the scoreboard ticking over. If there is one thing you cannot afford to do against Saracens, it is to play from behind.
In addition to Salvi, another player who will have a strong bearing on Exeter’s fortunes is Devoto.
He may not have had the most eye-catching debut season in Devon and he seems to have fallen out of Eddie Jones’ England plans for now, but he has quietly asserted himself and his style on a club which had not had a player of his ilk at inside centre for some time. Where Devoto can make the difference on Saturday is trying to pick the lock that is the Saracens defence.
The merits of Saracens’ high-intensity blitz defence are well-known and it puts a lot of pressure on the decision-making of the attacking inside centre. It blitzes aggressively from outside centre, defending outside in, and it is the speed of thought of the attacking inside centre – or second receiver – rather than the fly-half, that dictates how much success can be had against it.
As impressive as Saracens’ line-speed is, even they are unable to regularly disrupt the 10-12 channel, but they are able to clog the 12-13 channel, whether that’s threatening to intercept or simply meeting the outside centre as soon as or very quickly after he receives the ball.
This puts the spotlight on Devoto’s passing and kicking games, as it creates space both out wide and behind the advancing defensive line. Two options which have had success against Saracens this season are the chip in behind the defence and the looping pass which takes out the threat of Marcelo Bosch intercepting or stopping the ball-carrier behind the gain-line.
It’s all very easy to analyse and point this out on paper, but the ability to diagnose the situation the defence is presenting you with and then execute to a high standard, all in the space of a second or two, is a completely different proposition.
These are the high-pressure games where players can make a name for themselves and the opportunity is there for Devoto to reignite his international prospects with a mature performance against the title-holders.
He will be harassed from beginning to end, but he cannot let that influence the confidence or urgency he and Exeter play with, lest they fall into the one-out runner trap that saw Saracens swallow up both Munster and Clermont in recent weeks.
Away from the battle of styles and individual players that we will see on Saturday, Exeter have been handed a valuable weekend of rest before the contest. It can certainly be argued that Saracens will take momentum from playing this past weekend, especially as they seemed to emerge from it unscathed in terms of injuries, but it was a much-needed period of recuperation for Exeter.
Slade, Don Armand, Greg Holmes and Lachie Turner all missed Exeter’s last game of the regular season against Gloucester and this has afforded them as much time as possible to get back to full fitness.
Then there are the swirling Sandy Park winds and a packed-out stadium to consider. If there is a team out there to be completely unfazed by both possibilities, it’s Saracens, but in the aggregation of the marginal and minute factors that could sway what it is likely to be an extremely close and competitive game, they could yet be decisive elements.
Other factors, such as Saracens players’ minds being on the Lions tour and/or complacent after winning the Champions Cup will be floated, but given everything we know about how McCall runs that team, they are almost beyond comprehension to consider as anything that could prove significant in the outcome of this game.
Thankfully for neutrals, this will be match-up of two teams at the top of their games, with relatively few injury issues, and it will be the team that deals with the conditions and pressure of the match best, that will emerge victorious.
It will require an incredible team effort from Exeter but if there is a side capable of stopping an in-form and full-strength Saracens from winning their third-straight title, it’s the Chiefs.
Spearheaded by Salvi and Devoto, Exeter have every chance of upsetting the odds on Saturday and returning to Twickenham for their second final in as many years.