By GARETH DAVIES 11th October 2020
There was joy and despair in equal measures across the West Country yesterday as Premiership rugby’s play-off semi-finals took place. For the game as a whole, it was a welcome relief that the major talking points were on the field, after a week in which the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic once again dominated the headlines.
After last weekend’s regular Premiership fixtures came to an end with two games called off because of positive coronavirus tests in the Sale Sharks camp, the top-flight here in England headed for a farcical conclusion.
Firstly, due to the track and trace system, Gloucester’s home match with Northampton Saints was canned and ruled as a 20-0 win for the Cherry and Whites. This was because the visiting side had played Sale previously and therefore, players were asked to self isolate.
With Sale’s game against Worcester postponed until Wednesday initially because of 19 positive covid tests, it was then called off indefinitely with further members of the Manchester club also returning positive tests on Tuesday.
With Sale unable to play their final match, Bath were awarded fourth spot after a 17-17 draw with relegated Saracens last Sunday handed the Blue, Black and White the final play-off berth. Bristol had already confirmed third place with a win over London Irish and despite losing to Wasps, who grabbed the runners-up berth, Exeter finished top by three points.
The Chiefs, who suffered three consecutive league defeats after securing a home semi-final, would face Bath, while Bristol faced the daunting challenge of a trip to the Ricoh Arena to face Wasps.
In the early kick-off game, Lee Blackett’s men defeated an out of sorts Bristol 47-24 to book their place at Twickenham on October 24. Later on, yesterday afternoon, Exeter then hosted Bath at Sandy Park and a much closer affair ensued. The Chiefs only led 13-6 after 40 minutes and with Jonny Hill in the sin-bin, Bath had a real opportunity to cause a major upset. However, the Chiefs found an extra gear to firstly keep Stuart Hooper’s men out while Hill was off the field, before kicking on to score three further converted tries to secure a fifth consecutive play-off final appearance.
Before the domestic champions of England are crowned, both Exeter and Bristol have the small matter of European cup finals next weekend.
For the Bears, they will travel across the English Channel to face Toulon in the Challenge Cup final – their first ever continental final. Like Bristol, the French side were defeated yesterday as they lost 25-21 to Montpellier in the TOP1414.
Pat Lam’s Bristol will probably go into the match at the Stade Maurice David, home of D2 outfit Provence, as slight underdogs. Nevertheless, they have consistently defied the odds this season, although yesterday’s defeat to Wasps was below par and Lam will be keen to nestle at least one piece of silverware in the Ashton Gate trophy cabinet.
In the Champions Cup 24- hours later, Exeter will also take part in their first ever European final as they lock horns with Racing 92. The Parisians, who boast the likes of Scottish fly-half Finn Russell in their ranks, have had their preparations disrupted by positive COVID-19 tests for members of club personnel. Although the details of who tested positive has not been disclosed, Racing were forced to call off their most recent TOP14 game, meaning they will not have played competitively since defeating Saracens at the semi-final stage on September 25.
Exeter will go into the match at Ashton Gate in positive mood and they stand on the cusp of greatness with two finals to look forward to in quick succession. If they are triumphant in both, it will see Rob Baxter’s men complete a unique double for the first time ever and they will replace Saracens as the kings of rugby both on these shores, and further afield too.