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Premier 15s: How Exeter find themselves at the centre of an intriguing final round

By Claire Thomas
Credit: Ben Lumley Photography

There’s one club this column’s hardly touched of late, and that’s Exeter Chiefs – which is ridiculous, given what a fascinating, accomplished, and destructive side they are. That needs putting right, and this is the perfect week for that – given the position Exeter find themselves in.

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They lost in round one, in their own back yard, to Gloucester-Hartpury. A warning shot from the Cherry and Whites that they’d be something very special this year. Both teams were without their World Cup stars, but it was Sean Lynn’s women who flew out of the blocks the fastest and most cohesive – sealing a victory the Welshman had assured them could prove vital towards the business end of proceedings. How right he was.

Susie Appleby’s side then had a confidence-catalysing trip to DMP, gave Worcester an encouraging thumping in the third round, and promptly proceeded to really let rip. The numbers were jaw dropping: bonus points bagged as insouciantly as groceries, opponents seemingly nilled on a whim, and the individual stats of the likes of Claudia MacDonald, Kate Zackary, and Maisy Allen freakish in the best possible way.

No side scored more. No side leaked less. Time and again, they proved the meanest of green machines – pedals flat to the floor as they strung together a series of swatting asides: opponents merely jungle vines to be macheted from their path to the El Dorado of Round 18’s grudge match extraordinaire, and the chance to have another go at Gloucester-Hartpury.

We all circled the fixture in our diaries, and made a note to be free at 2pm on June 3rd – when first would play second in a straight shoot out for the semi-final *not* featuring an ever-more menacing Saracens. The league became a game of hot potato. Who would be left trying to juggle a scorching Marlie Packer as the playoffs roared into view?

Chiefs retained the Allianz Cup during the Six Nations before a crowd of almost 3,000, and then – suddenly – they faltered. Or did they? Were back-to-back losses away to Sarries and Bristol actually plucky raids of hostile territories?

They did return with three bonus points, after all. Or could they prove the results which force Exeter to relinquish home advantage in the semi-finals – after looking, for such a long time, nailed on to be playing knockout rugby on familiar turf?

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Whether the fans are chomping on pasties (Devon) or sipping on Tiki Tonga coffee (North London) makes a massive difference, after all: it’s hard to snatch victory from the jaws of a title-defending wolfpack. Saracens have never won at Sandy Park, and Chiefs have never won at the StoneX – as the aforementioned MacDonald pointed out during a chat in the Devonian sunshine yesterday.

Here’s how it’ll work. If Exeter win at Gloucester-Hartpury on Saturday – they’ll be at home on June 11th. The gap between them and Saracens, who’ve not lost since January 14th (to Chiefs, of all teams), has shrunk to just three – guaranteeing last day drama.

The reigning champions head to Franklin’s Gardens knowing that a bonus point win there forces Exeter to leave the Alpas Arena with at least four points banked. Should they fail, Sarries would leapfrog the side they defeated in last year’s final, and complete the most amazing surge through the standings – from 7th to 2nd in the space of 13 rounds.

This bit’s pure speculation, but I think we might see quite a bit of rotation from the table toppers, come the weekend. Sean Lynn is a big believer in momentum and results, and I’m sure it’s deliciously satisfying defeating your predecessor (Appleby headed up women’s rugby at Hartpury before the Premier 15s’ foremost “any weather is shorts weather” devotee took over) – but surely they’d rather face Chiefs at Kingsholm in the big one, should they get past Bristol.

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There’s no such thing as a ‘weak’ Gloucester-Hartpury side – their squad depth is too fathomless for that – but a highly-motivated, fully-loaded Saracens outfit are a scary prospect, and – whilst the Cherry and Whites can beat anyone on their day – they’d probably not mind too much if things fell Exeter’s way this weekend, and Alex Austerberry’s women had to grind out their first ever win at Sandy Park in the semi-final.

No one wants to play Saracens in a knockout match, do they? It’s their party trick: they’ve only ever lost one of them in this competition. Chiefs’ fate is partially in Gloucester-Hartpury’s hands right now, which sets up this week’s team announcements very nicely.

Back to Exeter. Literally, in this case. As I’ve mentioned, I spent a day there this week- allowing Sandy Park’s ever-present breeze to lull me into believing I was impervious to the sun’s rays (I was not), and watching the squad prepare for a mammoth fortnight. Results-permitting – a massive month. Here are just a few things which stood out.

Spike ball (look it up!) is a rugby-wide obsession, and Chiefs are no exception. Gabby Cantorna’s energy during this part of the warm up is unrivalled.

Forwards Coach Steve Salvin is meticulous, and relishing his role with last year’s finalists. Poppy Leitch and Nichola Fryday were the on-pitch leaders of a seriously slick line-out session, but he was an eagle-eyed presence throughout – making occasional adjustments and observations – and then worked closely with each and every front rower during their scrummaging reps. At the other end of the field, Appleby put the backs through a series of punchy drills, which really whet the appetite for the clash of two of the league’s most lethal handlers on Saturday.

Liv McGoverne has brought so much to this team’s match day structure and attacking options, but I’d not considered how her skill set and experience would permeate training: she was offering up little pointers to the younger playmakers during a kicking session at the centre of the pitch – whilst between seemingly having the ball on a string herself. She’s a special player.

The accents were as varied as I’ve ever heard at a Premier 15s club – training took place within a cacophony of Canadian, USA, Italian, Irish, Scottish, English, and Australian voices – and just chatting to a few of the athletes proved that it’s a highly sociable melting pot:

Silvia Turani loves hosting, and putting on Mediterranean feasts; Lori Cramer’s dance moves and witticisms had everyone entertained; the easy relationship between Exeter University Head Coach Leitch and her athletes shows what an effective system that has proven; and US Eagles Hope Rogers and Charli Jacoby – through peals of giggles – were even able to admit that they quite like their Canadian teammates really… It was all as contagious as it was impressive.

To Saturday, then. The first playoff is set in stone, whilst the other hangs in the balance. Its protagonists are locked in, but one significant feature won’t be confirmed until the full-time whistles of Round 18. As any estate agent will tell you: ‘location, location, location.’ Who will have home advantage, come June 12th? Chiefs’ destiny and destination are in their own hands here, but each of Gloucester-Hartpury, Saracens, and Loughborough Lightning have a part to play.

These two crucial fixtures will be shown live on Saturday, so be sure to tune in – if you’re not heading down to one of the games already. You get brownie points and a fabulous afternoon’s entertainment either way: this thing is going down to the wire.

Whilst millions worldwide are mourning the conclusion of ‘Succession’, there’s another unmissable power struggle taking place right now in the Premier 15s, and – trust me – and there are some stonking episodes still to come…

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