Exeter Chiefs’ momentous rise continued with maiden Aviva Premiership title.

In 1996 the Devon club were competing down in the fourth tier of English rugby. Now 21 years later they’ve become the Champions of England after beating Wasps in an enthralling final.

Exeter Chief’s head coach Rob Baxter refused to call this a fairy-tale story. Instead he described it as the end of a ‘very long journey.’ Having been associated with the club for over 20 years, you could imagine the jubilation he felt when the final whistle blew at Twickenham and his side had completed their quest to become a real force in the domestic game.

The Devon outfit have been on a steady upward trajectory since the late 90s, and after moving to their Sandy Park stadium in 2006, people were beginning to take notice. They won promotion to the Premiership in 2010 after beating Bristol in a two-legged play-off, before winning the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2014 (their first ever major trophy).

But not everything has been plain sailing for Baxter’s side.

In 2016 they were beaten in the Premiership final by Saracens- a defeat that saw the team crash back down to earth with a heavy bump. That loss seemed to still be on the player’s minds at the beginning of last season, as they lost four of their opening six games in the league and were thrashed at home by Clermont in the European Champions Cup.

But the team dug deep, irradiated their problems, found their inner belief, and were rightfully crowned champions after a 17-game unbeaten run in the league that stretched back to October 2016 (equalling the unbeaten record set by Leicester Tigers in 1999-2000).

Two of the most influential players during that 23-20 win over Wasps in May were Gareth Steenson and Phil Dollman. Dubbed ‘the originals’ by the fans, Steenson had kicked 24 points in the game that saw Exeter promoted from the Championship seven years ago. It was therefore only fitting that once again the fly-half that was at the centre of the action, kicking the winning points in extra-time to send the Chiefs into ecstasy.

Dollman had also contributed for Exeter, scoring with a try before being forced off with injury.

Winger Jack Nowell, who has 32 caps for England, finished in the corner for Exeter’s first try of the game and the Chiefs found themselves 14-3 up before a Wasps fight back made it 17-20 with minutes remaining.

Ice-cool Steenson levelled it up with his reliable boot, before the 33-year old scored the winning points with just three extra-time minutes remaining.

Baxter admitted that this maiden title has now got to be a starting block for the team – they look to improve even further – with the next objective for the Devon club being to mount a serious challenge in European competition.

Going into 2017-18 as champions unearthed new challenges and pressure for the Chiefs, but they have all seemed to have taken it in their stride.

10 games into the season and Exeter sit pretty at the top of the Premiership table, with an eight-point cushion over second-placed Gloucester.

They also sit top of their pool in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and second in their European Champions Cup group behind Leinster.

2018 could potentially be an ever greater year for the Exeter, as they look to begin to stake a claim as one of the best domestic sides in the northern hemisphere, a label that would truly complete their fairy-tale rise to the top.

Semesa Rokoduguni and Denny Solomona will have no better opportunity to prove themselves in an England shirt.

Head coach Eddie Jones faces a potential selection headache ahead of England’s first autumn Test against Argentina on November 11th.

The Red Rose have usually got a plethora of talent in the wing position at their disposal, but that has been hijacked by injuries with Jack Nowell, Eliot Daly and Jonny May all ruled out for the Pumas clash.

Marland Yarde – who controversially joined Sale from Premiership rivals Harlequins earlier in the week – has been left out of the squad altogether until his situation has been fully resolved.

All of this means Bath’s Semesa Rokoduguni has been rewarded with the recall he’s most certainly deserved, after making a superb start to the season at the Rec.

The Fiji-born winger has scored seven tries in seven Premiership games this season, which is the same amount as rival May. It isn’t just his attacking nature that has got critics talking either. His defensive work has improved considerably. He is now making tackles he once wasn’t, and isn’t dropping as many high balls.

This is something that Jones has taken a liking too, and now he could give Rokoduguni another bite at the cherry after making his debut against New Zealand two years ago.

But no one can rule out Sale’s Denny Solomana either.

The 23-year old has scored six tries in seven matches for his club and he will want to desperately make amends after getting sent home from England’s summer training camp back in August for a drinking incident.

Solomana, who switched from rugby league to rugby union last year, scored the winning try in that unforgettable match against Argentina in June, and won many admirers for his performances in South America.

For both of them, there is no better opportunity to fully prove themselves to Jones, their teammates and England fans that they deserve to wear the Red Rose jersey.

The stage is set: Twickenham stadium with 80,000 fans singing and chanting Jerusalem. There is no better place in world rugby for an England player to prove their worth, especially with a World Cup less than two years away.

With making the squad for Japan 2019 the long-term target for most of these players, the likes of Rokoduguni and Solomana have a much more immediate task to complete. They will both be as determined as ever to cement a place in the England team going into 2018.

Six Nations Opening 2 weeks Summary

Hard hits, muddy pitches and shear entertainment. The Six Nations is back, and this year looks the tightest competition in history. We have had two rounds of fixtures and Ireland are the early pacesetters with two comprehensive wins followed closely by France.

The team in green have dispatched Scotland and defending champions Wales at the Aviva Stadium, and may have become the favourites in the bookies for the championship. However with matches against England and France still to come, the Irish can’t take their foot off the gas.

I always believed the French were going to be dark horses in this competition this year. After a disastrous Six Nations campaign in 2013- one in which they finished in last place- the team would be looking to bounce back with a serious title winning bid. Like Ireland, the team have won their opening two games, including a crucial last minute victory over England. But again, France have played in Paris for both fixtures they have fun, and they have to come across the channel to play in Cardiff and Dublin.

For England and Wales, it is a bit of catching up to do. A heartbreaking defeat in Paris was followed last Saturday by an excellent performance at Murrayfield where England won 20-0. England need to beat both Ireland and Wales to come out in 1st place in the Championship and we all know that will be a huge challenge for Lancaster and his men.

The Welsh are in the exact same position. The defending champions have been below par in my opinion. They only just put Italy to the sword in their opening fixture before being annihilated by the Irish. They will have to beat France and England, making the game at Twickenham massive as the losers can say goodbye to their title challenge.

The Scottish and the Italians find themselves both pointless, and bottom of the pile. It seems like these two nations will be fighting it out to avoid the ‘wooden spoon’.

So, who do you think will win the Six Nations? Why not comment below or tweet me at @leeham1996 or Facebook at Liam ‘leeham’ Richner

Impressive Autumn Internationals; England Can Push For 2015 Now…

“Good…but could be better”. These were the words used by England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster to describe England’s performances over the autumn season.  England had started the series impressively with a solid performance against Australia in a rematch of the 2003 world cup final. A good win against Argentina followed a week later before the All Blacks came to town last Saturday. England put in a respectable effort against without question the best national rugby union side in the world, but lost 30-22.

Performances that particularly impressed me were that of Full back Brown and centre Wood. The relationship between Wood and Robshaw worked well in all three games and the combination is sure to come about again when the Six Nations return at the start of the New Year.

From the three performances I gained both excitement and more charisma that we can mount a good challenge for the World Cup on our own shores in 2015. The All Blacks didn’t dominate like they have in previous years and with the team bonding and working well as a unit I believe we can be dark horses in the tournament in two years’ time.

A tough pool awaits the Red Roses, with Australia and Wales to play just to get into the quarter Finals- we are certainly in the group of death. The confidence level to progress must surely have risen after the autumn internationals though in many fans hearts.

It is still a long wait until we get to 2015 and it won’t be too long until the Six Nations return, and England must be confident to end the mini dominance Wales have had in the tournament over the past couple of years. I am sure we will win the Six Nations and be a force to reckon with over the next two or more years.

Is 2003 repeating itself- will we have a team of world champions come 2015? Well the way we are going I’m sure that will be answered with a confident YES.

So going back to Lancaster’s point of improvement- its a little harsh… but every team can improve (even NZ) and our improvement will be that we will keep the World Cup trophy home in 2015…

Harlequins Up Against It

It has been a tough start for Harlequins this season in both the Aviva Premiership and  Heineken cup; with the team sitting seventh in the league followed by opening defeats to Scarlets at the Stoop and Clermont across the shores yesterday in the Heineken Cup.

Harlequins have found themselves in a tough pool for the early stages of the Heineken Cup. Scarlets are a strong side from the pro 12, Clermont haven’t lost at home in the competition for six years and Racing Metro is always a tough test for any team.  so it will need some good performances to make it out of the pool. The team did come home from France with a losing bonus point yesterday and with Metro and Saracens drawing, hopes of progressing from the pool has been reignited.

The Clermont game was both extremely tough and intimidating as the home fans roared their side to victory. For the travelling fans, they may have feared an obliteration was on the cards especially has Clermont scored three early tries.

However a hearty second half performance from Harlequins made it an exciting watch towards the end. Tom Williams scored a try and Nick Evans scored an important drop kick along with a  penalty and conversion to secure the bonus point for the team.  Ben Botica had got Harlequins off and running earlier in the match with their opening points from a penalty.

The game finished 23-16, a promising result for Harlequins who now face a double header against Racing Metro in December in an attempt to push for the top two places in the pool.

The league performances haven’t been the best either. Opening defeats to Northampton and Saracens were disappointing for the 2012 champions. They have started to pick up some sort of form in the last couple of matches but the results need to remain positive and a good string of wins is required for them to push for the championship.

I do believe Harlequins are still a team highly capable to win the Premiership with the likes of England internationals Joe Marler and Chris Robshaw in their side. The Stoop will need to become a fortress in the winter months for the team to sustain their chances of both moving up the league table and advances to the latter stages of the Heineken Cup.

Come on lads…

Why the Lions will roar in Australia

I have a good feeling about the Lions tour this year. For the first time for a while, I truly think that we can turn over the wallabies in their own backyard by winning the test series 3-0. It may be early to come to these conclusions but these are the three main reasons why I think we have the best chance to claim a series whitewash in Australia.

The Coaching Staff have been instrumental and a revolution for the Lions team. Head Coach Warren Gatland has brought together a team of coaches who know how to win the biggest things the sport can throw at them.

Sam Warburton is a role model for young captains. He makes his presence known both on and off the field, although he may have missed the past few warm ups with an injury, he will only add to the strength of the team. He will feature in Saturdays warm up match against the Reds.

The form the team has shown in the two warm up matches against the Barbarians and Western Force have shown that we are here to do business, comfortable victories will frighten the Wallabies who could be seen in a transitional period can give them some cause for concern although the two opponents facing the Lions were weak.

The team should face their strongest test yet on Saturday as they take on the Reds in Brisbane, catch the action live on Sky Sports.

The Six Nations Decider: Wales V England

Saturday could see England win their first Glam Slam since 2003 in the six nations if they beat Wales in Cardiff. Stuart Lancaster’s men will be hoping that they can follow in the footsteps of the side that went on to win the Rugby World Cup when Jonny Wilkinson scored the famous drop kick to beat Australia 10 years ago.

England had impressed in the first three games of the tournament, beating Scotland and Italy at Twickenham and an impressive display in Dublin against the Irish. Key individuals have impressed many during the competition including young Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilangi and Captain Chris Robshaw. However, last week’s victory over Italy was not as straight forward as anticipated; and improvement will be needed if the Englishmen are to complete the Grand Slam.

Wales aren’t ever going to be easy opponents for England, especially at the Millennium Stadium, but the fact the Welsh still have a chance of winning back-to-back championships gives them that little incentive to push for victory. Since there disappointing defeat to the Irish on week one, the Welsh team have improved immensely, scoring the highest amount of tries in the tournament. They will be hoping to be the first team to win successive titles since France back in 2006/2007.

Come Saturday evening we will have our champions, and even if people complain the rugby has not been of high standard in this year’s competition, I would expect many such as myself to anticipate a good physical match between two very good rugby sides, who incidentally will meet in the pool phrase when the Rugby World Cup comes to our shores in 2015.