Chiefs delight in Premiership ascent
May 27, 2010
Exeter delight in their historic victory over Bristol in the inaugural Championship Play-Off Final © Getty Images
It may be worth only a modest estimated figure of £4 million in comparison to football's £90 million play off, but the after-match feelings were the same for the players and fans of Exeter and Bristol as they were for Blackpool and Cardiff at Wembley. Both produced raw sporting clashes that engrossed spectators.
As Exeter's players and fans celebrated in the rain, having deservedly won the first Championship Final, Bristol's loyal following filed out of the Memorial Ground contemplating another season in the second-flight of English rugby after relegation from the Premiership 12 months ago. "It will take us two years to recover from that defeat," was one parting view in a full house of 11,850.
Exeter won 29-10 on the night to follow up last week's 9-6 win at Sandy Park. Over the two matches, the Chiefs were stronger, smarter and far less mistake prone.
An inaugural season in the Premiership is just reward for a traditional club built on solid foundations of a new stadium and improving squad. Bristol's head coach Paul Hull will have nightmares about how his players coped so poorly in the rain which made a strong nerve all the more important.
Amid the excited talk of Premiership football next season, Exeter's head coach Rob Baxter had plenty of sympathy for Hull and his Bristol team who finished top of the Championship in the regular season of 22 games which was followed by an eight-team play-off. It has been a long nine-month campaign in the new-style Championship which was imposed by the Rugby Football Union on reluctant second tier clubs in the spring of 2009. These two well-supported clubs were always likely to dominate.
Bristol, despite enduring a third spell in the second-flight, had the benefit of a 'parachute' payment from the Premiership which gave them a £1.7 million advantage over their rivals. That funding will now stop forcing Steve Corvett, the Bristol chief executive, to forecast some long, hard thinking on the way forward.
"We won the league but knew it would come down to a one-off match. It's very disappointing," he said. "We were always against the Championship play-off system. Even in football where the play-off system is very successful, the champion team goes up automatically."
Baxter claimed both Exeter and Bristol should be in an expanded Premiership alongside relegated Worcester. Talk of making the top-flight to 14 teams to include all the 'monied' teams has proved nothing more than that in recent months.
The Exeter coach, like most counterparts in the Championship, is not a fan of the new, convoluted, season. He explained, "No one is telling me that this is the way it should happen. Whatever way you dress it up it is madness that what happened out there should not have been taking place in the Premiership. This is the way it was decided to run it this way this season.
"I'm not a big fan of it because I see how hard and how much we have had to invest to get a Premiership team. And I know how hard Bristol have had to work. To have Bristol and Worcester probably kills the Championship next season."
Baxter will not be worrying about the Championship come September. By then Exeter will have recruited six to eight players to complement a settled squad. "I think one thing in our favour has been the fact that all of our starting line up and half the bench were committed to playing at Exeter next season regardless of whether we were promoted or not. Everyone knows that was not the case for the Bristol team.
"The last guy committed himself over a month ago - a long time before we played Bristol which I think gave us a real steel and belief in what we are doing. We are not going to throw any of those guys away. We will add some quality and we will have a core of guys who know what it takes to play for Exeter."
Baxter praised his support staff, including attack coach Ali Hepher, the former Northampton fly-half. It was at his insistence that No.10 Gareth Steenson and the Exeter pack rehearsed drills to engineer drop goal opportunities. Steenson, the Ulsterman who started out in English rugby at Rotherham before moving to the south west at Cornish Pirates, landed two drop goals in a points tally of 24 which included six penalty goals.
His only misses were a long-range attempt in the second half and the conversion of a try by substitute hooker Simon Alcott in the final seconds. By then Bristol looked well beaten. The turning point proved to be when a penalty by Bristol's Adrian Jarvis struck an upright in the 62nd minute. Exeter only led 24-16 overall at that point and looked to be faltering.
"There was a definite sticky period and Bristol will be kicking themselves," added Baxter. "We just went to sleep and it could have cost us. But the conditions made it very difficult for Bristol to chase the game at that stage though we went very defensive."
Steenson took charge in the final quarter. Besides his accurate kicking, he made a crucial break from this own 22 which ended a period of Bristol pressure. He left Ulster rugby because he could not see a way past the Humphreys brothers in the provincial team. "It was always the dream to play in the Premiership and now we have a chance," he said.