New COVID-19 blow for Premiership Final
NEWS: Wasps’ front row has been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak that threatened their involvement in Saturday’s Premiership Final against newly-crowned European champions Exeter.
Props Kieran Brookes and Simon McIntyre are among four players ruled out of the climax to the English season due to contact-tracing protocols.
Tom West and Jeff Toomaga-Allen take their places in the team announced on Friday.
No.8 Brad Shields also misses out after seven players returned positive tests for COVID-19, so Tom Willis plugs the gap in the back row.
Hooker Alfie Barbeary’s hopes of securing a bench role for the Twickenham showdown have also been dashed.
In total there are four changes to the starting XV that thumped Bristol 47-24 in the semifinal, the last of them coming in the midfield as part of an otherwise unchanged backline.
Big-hitting centre Malakai Fekitoa has lost his battle with a groin injury, so Juan de Jongh slots in at 13.
“If we are all being honest, it hasn’t been ideal preparation, but I have to give credit to the players because they have coped with it admirably,” said head coach Lee Blackett.
“A lot of credit must also go to the staff. The amount of work that they have put in behind the scenes to allow us to play in this game is phenomenal.”
“We know it will be tough,” he added. “Exeter deservedly finished top of the league this season, but we are confident with the form that we can take into the game.”
Exeter boss Rob Baxter has made a number of changes to his winning European formula ahead of their fifth successive appearance in the end-of-season decider.
Up front, Sam Skinner takes over from his Scottish international teammate Jonny Gray, while Jannes Kirsten is preferred to compatriot Jacques Vermeulen in the back-row.
Behind them, Ollie Devoto comes into the centre alongside Henry Slade, while Olly Woodburn is given the nod over Tom O’Flaherty on the right wing.
Baxter said his players had been restrained in the celebrations after beating Racing 92 last week to be crowned kings of Europe for the first time.
“All of us know there was another game to go, so it’s important that the sacrifices they and their families have made over these weeks and months, are now made worthwhile, by turning up and performing well this weekend,” he said.
“They have down time coming up and they can celebrate afterwards, but the key thing for me – and I’ve said it to the lads – is that they can enjoy it all by playing well this weekend. I’d love for them to round off their season in a special way by producing one of those big Exeter-type performances.”
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Joe Simmonds (captain), 9 Jack Maunder, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Sam Skinner, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Alec Hepburn.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Jacques Vermeulen, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Ian Whitten.
Wasps: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Zach Kibirige, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jimmy Gopperth, 11 Josh Bassett, 10 Jacob Umaga, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Tom Willis, 7 Thomas Young, 6 Jack Willis, 5 Will Rowlands, 4 Joe Launchbury (captain), 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Tommy Taylor, 1 Tom West.
Replacements: 16 Gabriel Oghre, 17 Ben Harris, 18 Biyi Alo, 19 James Gaskell, 20 Ben Morris, 21 Ben Vellacott, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Michael Le Bourgeois.
Date: Saturday, October 24
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 18.00 (17.00 GMT)
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys
Assistant referees: Simon Harding, Paul Dix
TMO: Rowan Kitt