Some unbelievable scenes preceded this weekend’s spectacle as Harlequins bashed their way into the final in a most dramatic fashion by toppling tournament favourites, Bristol Bears, on the latter’s home turf, courtesy of one of the most remarkable comebacks in the competition’s proud history. Quins will face defending champions Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park on Saturday to decide which team will hoist the trophy and call the 2020-21 season their own.
The Bristol vs Quins encounter was a true testament to the ability of semi-finals rugby to elevate the hunted into the role of hunters. Quins finished the season in 4th spot on the log and were not given much of a chance ahead of the semis on account of the fact that their opponents had enjoyed a brilliant season which saw them claim top spot on the standings. The Ashton Gate faithful were in high spirits as the first half drew to a close – the sound of the jubilant fans’ chants echoing around the stadium as it looked as though Quins, yet to appear on the scoreboard and 28 points adrift, were already dead and buried. Little did the spectators and players know that one of the most frenetic spells of rugby was waiting in the wings.
"It feels a little bit surreal, but it feels pretty amazing," said Quins' general manager Billy Millard.
"At half-time, there was a bit of belief that if we could get some momentum, the pressure would turn, but you just couldn't predict how it would turn out.
"The first thing I'm going to do is watch the last two and a half minutes as I was in the changing room as I just couldn't watch.
"I've been involved in too many nervy finishes like that in the past and not ended up on the right end.
"I stood there with [former Harlequins player] Kyle Sinckler and we watched it in the changing room.
"He shook my hand at the end and congratulated us all and wished us well for next week."
After a tense victory last weekend – which also saw two of their top forwards, Sam Skinner and Dave Ewers banned for the rest of the competition, Exeter showed just why they are the current title holders as they saw off a gritty and determined Sale Sharks outfit who rightly thought that a spot in the final was within their grasp. However, Exeter have enjoyed a wealth of experience in finals rugby in recent times, their ability to deal with pressure coming to the fore and carrying them into the final.
In a beautiful symmetry, Quins and Chiefs will close the tournament off after having opened it on 20 November 2020. It was a result which Quins would rather forget, however, as Chiefs were rampant at the Twickenham Stoop, opening their campaign with a quality victory.
The return match was a much tighter affair and concluded with Quins kicking themselves as they could very well have walked away with a victory as the final whistle sounded with the score at 21-20.
The expectations will be high for the Chiefs to replicate last season's efforts while not much pressure will be placed on the shoulders of Harlequins - an advantageous position for the latter. Expect a brutal war of attrition during the opening stages of the game as the forwards packs battle for ascendency. On the face of it, Exeter’s experience in this stage of a tournament should see them through, however, after last weekend, the question of what Harlequins are capable of when they put their minds to it is a troubling one for the Sandy Park faithful.
Chiefs recently received news that industrious, South African-born flanker, Jacques Vermeulen, will be out of action after undergoing hamstring surgery. This, coupled with the loss of Dave Ewers and Sam Skinner ahead of the semi-finals leaves the Exeter pack somewhat compromised, taking nothing away from their competent replacements.
One expects Harlequins to take the pitch and give their al in ebullient mood as they have already surpassed so many expectations by reaching the grand final. If their pack is up to the mark and the creativity of Marcus Smith and Danny Care hums – igniting the finishing power of the likes of Joe Marchant and Tyrone Green, a marvellous afternoon’s rugby will play out on the pitch.
A large nucleus of Baxter’s squad this weekend have tasted the Twickenham Final experience previously, but there will be a small number of players who will be sampling the occasion for the first time and the Chiefs leader says they must embrace the whole day.
“I think you need to let those guys have that different motivation,” said Baxter. “Their motivation is this is my first final, a huge occasion for me, but you have to remind them of the same stuff as everybody else, which is use your motivation for today to make you the best players in our systems and in what we do that you can. That will allow you to thrive, allow the team to thrive, allow you to have the best experience and, hopefully, gives you the best opportunity to win.”
And one of those who will be getting his first taste of running out for the Chiefs at HQ will be young flanker Richard Capstick, whose afternoon was cut short after just two minutes last weekend following a high tackle from Sale’s Manu Tuilagi.
Capstick was forced off following the incident and did not return for the remainder of the game. However, he has since passed all of his HIA protocols this week, and he is able to pack down in an unchanged Chiefs starting line-up from that which started a week ago.
Also in from the outset will be Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds, who together with Stuart Hogg - who is named on the bench - will be part of the British & Irish Lions contingent who fly to South Africa for their summer tour on Sunday.
Another starter is Jack Nowell, who marked his return to action last weekend by scoring two tries in the win over Sale. The Cornishman is the only Chiefs player to have featured in all six of Exeter’s Premiership Finals and much will be asked of him in his side’s pursuit of glory.
EXETER CHIEFS SIDE TO FACE HARLEQUINS
15 Jack Nowell
14 Alex Cuthbert
13 Henry Slade
12 Ollie Devoto
11 Tom O’Flaherty
10 Joe Simmonds (capt)
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie
3 Harry Williams
4 Jonny Gray
5 Jonny Hill
6 Jannes Kirsten
7 Richard Capstick
8 Sam Simmonds
16 Jack Yeandle
17 Ben Moon
18 Marcus Street
19 Sean Lonsdale
20 Don Armand
21 Stu Townsend
22 Harvey Skinner
23 Stuart Hogg
Amongst three changes to the starting side that claimed a historic semi-final win away to Ashton Gate last weekend, Springbok centre Andre Esterhuizen bolsters Quins’ midfield for the first time since March having returned from suspension this week. Stepping into the twelve jersey, Australian international Ben Tapuai takes up the 22 jersey on the bench.
Back row James Chisholm also returns to the starting XV this week, having impressed with a try-scoring appearance from the bench last weekend. Tom Lawday takes up the 20 jersey amongst the Impact Players.
The final change to the starting line-up sees wing Cadan Murley start following injury to outside back Aaron Morris in Bristol last week.
Harlequins Starting XV
1. Joe Marler (225)
2. Scott Baldwin (43)
3. Wilco Louw (28)
4. Matt Symons (63)
5. Stephan Lewies (35) - Captain
6. James Chisholm (112)
7. Jack Kenningham (12)
8. Alex Dombrandt (76)
9. Danny Care (306)
10. Marcus Smith (110)
11. Cadan Murley (47)
12. Andre Esterhuizen (18)
13. Joe Marchant (113)
14. Louis Lynagh (13)
15. Tyrone Green (21)
16. Joe Gray (173)
17. Santiago Garcia Botta (37)
18. Will Collier (188)
19. Dino Lamb (48)
20. Tom Lawday (39)
21. Martin Landajo (37)
22. Ben Tapuai (45)
23. Luke Northmore (27)
Unavailable for selection:
Mike Brown, Sam Riley
Unavailable due to injury:
Aaron Morris, Jordan Els, Oscar Beard, Paul Lasike, Will Evans