Exeter secure Premiership dream
May 26, 2010
Exeter players get the party started in the dressing room © Getty Images
Exeter clinched Guinness Premiership promotion for the first time in their history on Wednesday night following an emphatic 29-10 Championship play-off victory at Bristol.
They will replace Worcester in English rugby's top-flight after extending a 9-6 home leg advantage to triumph 38-16 on aggregate at a packed Memorial Stadium. Fly-half Gareth Steenson was the Exeter hero once more, kicking 24 of his team's points through six penalties and two drop-goals on the night after adding all nine points a week ago, while substitute hooker Simon Alcott scored a late try.
Bristol produced a first-half touchdown for fullback Luke Arscott, while Adrian Jarvis slotted a conversion and penalty. They could have few complaints at the final whistle though, given that their forwards were totally outgunned. Bristol, relegated last term with just two wins in 22 games, became the first demoted Premiership club for six seasons not to make an immediate return from the second tier.
But there was sheer jubilation for Exeter, who will now build towards a debut Premiership campaign and showcase their outstanding facilities at Sandy Park to a wider audience with considerably enhanced finances.
A Championship record crowd of 11,850 looked on as Bristol looked to make early in-roads by putting pace on the ball, yet Exeter's forwards had other ideas, and a powerfully-driven lineout set up Steenson for a fifth-minute penalty that doubled Chiefs' overall advantage.
Steenson quickly added a second penalty, only for Bristol to show their impressive creativity by conjuring a try from their first attack. Jarvis slipped effortlessly through Exeter's defence as the rain began to pour down, and his perfectly-timed pass saw Arscott glide over.
Jarvis' conversion edged Bristol 7-6 ahead, yet it proved a short-lived lead as the unflappable Steenson booted two further penalties in quick succession, one from inside his own half. There was no stopping Exeter's Irish marksman, and a drop-goal 10 minutes before the break meant Bristol trailed overall in the tie by 11 points.
Exeter were excellent value for their 15-7 interval advantage, and left Bristol's hopes of a swift Premiership return facing extinction unless the home forwards could deliver a vastly-improved effort, especially in the lineout. Jarvis narrowed the gap through a 52nd-minute penalty, but he missed two chances either side of that strike that would have edged the home side in front.
And it was the cue for Steenson to show him exactly how it should be done, effortlessly landing two further penalties before another drop-goal and Alcott's try meant the Chiefs' travelling supporters could start celebrating the realisation of a dream.
Exeter coach Rob Baxter felt his side's victory had answered their critics in fine style. The Chiefs have come so close to promotion on several previous occasions, finishing second in three of the previous five seasons, but they can now finally take their place in the top flight.
Baxter told Sky Sports 1, "It's a great feeling, it's been a a year's worth of hard work and it has all been worth it. You don't win championships without doing things right, despite people thinking we were one-dimensional and lacking in core skills, saying we only had one game plan. Well it is obviously pretty effective. It means a lot to me because it means a lot to these guys (the players). They carry the club on their back. They will have a lot of weight to carry next year but they will enjoy doing it."
Captain Tom Hayes, brother of Munster and Ireland prop John, shared his coach's sentiments. "It's unbelievable," he said. "There are so many people at this club who have been here longer than me and set out to reach the Premiership and I bought into that as soon as I got here. We have got so close so many times over the last few years and it is unbelievable to finally get there.
"It's been about putting the ghosts of the past behind us, people said we didn't have the bottle for the big day as Exeter had gone to Twickenham and lost a few finals. But it will be great to be on the big stage, it was a brilliant atmosphere tonight and that's what we can expect every week in the Premiership."
Man-of-the match Steenson also hailed the belief of his team-mates.
"We believed we were good enough," he said. "We said 50 weeks ago we were good enough and now we have proved it. The boys were fantastic and I am struggling for words to be honest. The party will last for three or four days I would imagine."