To call Ex­eter bor­ing is grossly un­fair. They have got con­fi­dence, pa­tience and belief

Rob Bax­ter’s side play to their strengths and they should make no apol­ogy for that ahead of the fi­nal

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - AUSTIN HEALEY

So, ap­par­ently Ex­eter are bor­ing. Duller than dish­wa­ter. Less en­ter­tain­ing than cre­osote dry­ing on Alan Shearer’s fence. More yawn-in­duc­ing than the min­utes of a Rugby Foot­ball Union coun­cil meet­ing.

Then I re­mem­bered to check the Gal­lagher Premier­ship ta­ble to re­mind my­self that no team scored more than their 89 tries. That is 12 more than Sara­cens’ Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions all-stars and nearly dou­ble the total scored by a Le­ices­ter Tigers team with half of Eng­land’s back di­vi­sion. In their past two matches against

Northamp­ton Saints, the fourthbest team in English rugby, they have scored 12 tries with­out kick­ing a sin­gle penalty.

Clearly, beauty lies in the eye of the be­holder, but I have al­ways liked teams who score tries. Maybe I am in a mi­nor­ity on that one, but I would much rather see a team try to play rugby than kick for the posts. My idea of bor­ing is two teams who are too scared to have a go ex­chang­ing penal­ties.

To call Ex­eter bor­ing is grossly un­fair. Pre­dictable maybe. It is one thing be­ing called pre­dictable and an­other thing be­ing able to stop it.

Why should Rob Bax­ter, Ex­eter’s di­rec­tor of rugby, stop go­ing to the if it keeps pro­duc­ing wa­ter? Ul­ti­mately, the de­ci­sion to kick to a corner rather than the posts comes down to a math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion.

In their semi-fi­nal vic­tory against Northamp­ton, they turned down nine kick­able penal­ties for kicks from which they scored five tries and 35 points. That is a re­turn of 3.9 points per penalty. Again, in their round-10 meet­ing with Sara­cens, when both sides were at full strength, they scored four tries from seven kick­able penal­ties, which is an av­er­age of four points per kick­able penalty.

Ex­eter back them­selves, back their driv­ing maul and back their pick-and-go game. They keep go­ing and go­ing and go­ing with­out ever seem­ing to turn it over. They have got con­fi­dence, pa­tience and belief. The Premier­ship would be an even bet­ter com­pe­ti­tion (and it has been amaz­ing this sea­son) if more teams played with those qual­i­ties. Sandy Park is nearly al­ways sold out, so they must be do­ing some­thing right.

Sir Clive Wood­ward once stood up in the Eng­land chang­ing room and said: “Right lads, how many dropped goals can we score in a match now that we have Jonny Wilkin­son, the king of dropped goals, in our team?” My an­swer to him was none, be­cause go­ing for a dropped goal shows that we have not got the belief we are go­ing to score a try, which gives the up­per hand to the de­fence. That is why I like Ex­eter’s style of rugby. They say: “We be­lieve you can’t stop us.”

They also have more than one string to their bow. Go back to the semi-fi­nal again and see Tom O’fla­herty carv­ing up the

Northamp­ton de­fence from the half­way line. Or Joe Sim­monds throw­ing a dummy for his try. Or Sam Hill car­ry­ing three de­fend­ers over the line. Those are not the scores of an un­ad­ven­tur­ous team.

If you go back a week fur­ther, just be­fore half-time Northamp­ton were down to 13 men and Ex­eter had a five-me­tre scrum. Clearly the backs called for the ball and Ol­lie Devoto ended up be­ing picked off by Cobus Reinach, who went up the other end to score. Are you telling me this team do not play with am­bi­tion? Stu­art Hogg is join­ing this sum­mer, which is a sign they want to play.

Are they the rein­car­na­tion of the 1973 Bar­bar­ians? No. Are they a side who play to their strengths? Un­doubt­edly, but they should make no apol­ogy for that. The stats show they are spend­ing fewer phases in the 22 than in pre­vi­ous sea­sons, which demon­strates they are be­com­ing ever more ef­fi­cient.

The ques­tion is whether their style will be enough to beat Sara­cens in the fi­nal. Le­in­ster em­ployed much the same tem­plate in the Cham­pi­ons Cup fi­nal, but found them­selves get­ting smashed back­wards. When you look at the packs, you would have to give Sara­cens the up­per hand, so maybe this is the time for Ex­eter to wheel out their party pieces.

Bax­ter must be pray­ing that San­ti­ago Cordero is fit enough to start, be­cause he can find space where few other play­ers can. It would also per­mit him to move Jack Now­ell back to the wing, where he is far more ef­fec­tive in hunt­ing for work and at­tack­ing the fringes around rucks. Of all the ar­eas on the field, the skill of the back three will be the de­ci­sive fac­tor. Sara­cens have the edge right now, but I think Ex­eter have been keep­ing some­thing in re­serve. It will be a crack­ing fi­nal be­tween the best teams in the coun­try.

Run­ning man: Ex­eter wing Tom O’fla­herty is set to be a key player in the Gal­lagher Premier­ship fi­nal

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