Exeter Chiefs - 2nd
The Chiefs endured a rocky start with just two wins in their first seven Premiership games including home defeats to Saracens and Bath and away to Saints and Wasps with a draw at Gloucester. There were some who perhaps thought their bubble had burst. But having dusted themselves off they stormed back to winning ways either side of Christmas and in the last nine games of the season reeled off eight wins and a draw with a bonus point in every game, a Premiership record. There was too much quality in the team not to click at some stage and another important factor is that hitherto the Chiefs seem to lose less star players during the November and Six Nations windows. They come into the play-offs in prime attacking form and after a long run-in should also benefit from the week’s rest while Saracens contest the European Cup final. STAND-OUTS: With just four players in the England squad to tour Argentina and only Jack Nowell on the Lions tour the Chiefs still struggle a little to attract the attention of national selectors but that is almost a complement to their team ethic. A clutch of players are particularly vital to the cause though – Gareth Steenson, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Thomas Waldrom and Henry Slade, while both Olly Woodburn and James Short have enjoyed startling seasons out wide. STRENGTHS: In the regular season the Chiefs not only made the most carries (3,209) but also the most passes (3,730). Their attacking game is all about ball in hand continuity and patience before they ruthlessly strike. This is allied to a strong scrum, efficient line-out and half-backs who rarely fail to deliver. WEAKNESSES: Like Wasps, Exeter always back themselves and give it the full monty in attack which can result in them in leaking too many tries for comfort – 55 in the regular season. The opposition are always like to score a few points and if they get away to a flying start – as Saracens did in the final last year – it can be a hair-raising business pulling them back. COACH’S CORNER: Rob Baxter treats the twin imposters exactly the same, stayed commendably cool during a dodgy start, stuck to his guns and was rewarded with a sensational second half of the season from his troops. Allows already very good players to express themselves and reach for an even higher level. MIRACLE MAN: A lot of skilful play makers and uber competent all-rounders rather than superstars, but when the Chiefs really need something special – either in attack or defence – Jack Nowell, left, is often the man. PREDICTION: Ok I’m going for it, I fancy they might just pull off the most famous win in their history and beat Saracens at Sandy Park to set-up an allsinging all-dancing final against Wasps. Runners-up.