Preview: Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Saints
PREMIERSHIP SEMIFINALS: Twelve months on and the wounds have still not healed for some of the Exeter Chiefs players as they head into their semifinal showdown with Northampton Saints on Saturday.
On a glorious day at Twickenham, the Chiefs were no match for a Saracens side that reclaimed the Premiership crown with a dominant 27-10 victory that earned the north Londoners their fourth title in just five years.
The end result was a repeat of what had happened at the same venue two years earlier only this time, having experienced contrasting emotions in 2017 by beating Wasps to land their first-ever Premiership crown, it hurt so much more for Devon’s finest.
Now, having finished top of the Premiership pile for a second successive season, the Chiefs are keen to use that experience as their motivation to reclaim the crown that was theirs in 2017. But before they can think of a final against Saracens or Gloucester, they must get past Northampton Saints to book a fourth successive appearance in the final.
“For us it is everything,” said Chiefs’ England and British Lions star Jack Nowell, who has appeared in only six Premiership matches this campaign with international call-ups and injury disrupting his season.
“The anger really was there, the boys were really upset from it, but coming through this year, it is important for us to remember that and remind ourselves as the season has gone on.
“We have worked so hard to get ourselves into this position. A home semi-final is hard to get, but we have done that and worked so hard to get there that it would be a shame to let ourselves down in one game and one game we should be confident going in to.
“A lot of the boys played in that final and feel they let the side down – and let the fans down as well – and that is one thing that none of us want to happen again.”
Nowell added: “When I think of how much it hurt us last year when we lost, it was completely different from the first year we lost in the final at Twickenham. Last year hurt and angered a lot of the boys.
“We have struggled in the last few weeks, but we have had a different challenge where we have rested boys at the end of the season whereas before, we would be scrapping for every single point in the Premiership.
“I think it’s worked out well. The boys are feeling fresh and excited again.”
Meanwhile, the men in Black, Green and Gold will travel to Sandy Park for the second time in as many weeks, as they qualified for the knockout stages of the Premiership despite a 21-40 defeat to top-of-the-table Exeter.
Piers Francis, Rory Hutchinson and Cobus Reinach all scored sensational tries in a pulsating first half in the West Country, but with the scores level at half-time, Chiefs pulled away after the break with relentless phase play.
The defeat is certainly a massive knock to Northampton Saints’ confidence.
However, Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar insists a spot in the Twickenham final on June 1 is within reach in his debut Premiership campaign.
“We’re in a semi-final, so we’ve got everything to lose,” Biggar told the BBC.
“The bookies, the media and most people in the country will back Exeter at home, but going there with nothing to lose is a defeatist attitude.
“In our eyes, we’ve got everything to lose because we want to be playing in Twickenham in the final.
“It’s a big prize to play for so it’s one heck of a lot to lose.
“We’re aware we’re underdogs, but what a challenge it is to get into the final. I think this league gives you nothing in terms of margin for error if you’re off your game, but that’s why it’s even more rewarding to be in that top four.
“Now that we are in the play-offs, it’s a huge opportunity to play with freedom and to play some attractive rugby and see if we can pick up a result,”
Prediction: Exeter’s two defeats in Premiership Rugby since February have both come in the last four rounds. The Chiefs have lost just once at Sandy Park in the tournament since February 2018: 19-26 to Wasps in round 19. Northampton Saints have played in eight previous Premiership Rugby semi-final encounters, their most recent being against Saracens in 2015. They have won just two of these matches, beating Saracens at Allianz Park in 2013 and Leicester at Franklin’s Gardens in 2014. The Saints defeat at Exeter last Saturday ended a three-game winning run in the competition. Exeter have lost just one of their last five fixtures with Northampton in Premiership Rugby: 28-31 at Franklin’s Gardens last December. Northampton have lost on their last seven visits to Sandy Park in all competitions, with their most recent victory there being by a single point in Premiership Rugby in February 2014.
Prediction: Exeter Chiefs
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Jack Nowell, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Tom O’Flaherty, 10 Joe Simmonds, 9 Nic White, 8 Matt Kvesic, 7 Don Armand, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Jack Yeandle (captain), 1 Ben Moon.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Jack Maunder, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Sam Hill.
Northampton Saints: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Tom Collins, 13 Rory Hutchinson, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Teimana Harrison (captain), 7 Lewis Ludlam, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Api Ratuniyarawa, 4 Alex Moon, 3 Ehren Painter, 2 James Fish, 1 Francois van Wyk.
Replacements: 16 Darren Dawidiuk, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Paul Hill, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Jamie Gibson, 21 Tom Wood, 22 Alex Mitchell, 23 Luther Burrell.
Date: Saturday, May 25
Venue: Sandy Park, England
Kick-off: 16.30 (15.30 GMT)
Referee: Matthew Carley
Assistant Referees: Tom Foley & Jack Makepeace.
TMO: Rowan Kitt.
Sources: @Premrugby; @ExeterChiefs & BBC