A superb Wanderers season came to a disappointing end at Sandy Park, hosts Exeter surging to the Aviva ‘A’ League title after half-time of a pulsating final.
The Wandies scored four tries of their own, a trio in a delicately poised first half in Devon, but inspired by a sizeable home crowd the Braves proved too strong, edging clear before putting their foot to the floor to cross nine times.
Will Hooley sent an early Exeter penalty to the corner and while the Wanderers were able to disrupt the lineout drive, they couldn’t stop the barnstorming Michel Campagnaro, who broke a couple of tackles and powered over on the left.
It was far from the ideal start for the men in grey, but having settled into a bruising game, they responded brilliantly through Jamie Elliott. JJ Hanrahan found decent touch with a banana kick from and a neat exchange thereafter ended with the Wandies wing bursting down the right and shrugging off the last man with a superb finish.
A firm pitch underfoot was suiting both side’s intentions to keep the ball in hand, but it was from a driving lineout that Exeter again set the platform for their second try. This time their progress was illegally halted, but the hosts played on and Tom Johnson floated the scoring pass into Brett Sturgess’ lap.
The score raised a healthy home crowd off their feet, but they were soon stunned into silence once more when Rory Hutchinson drew the Wanderers level. With the Braves leaving the ball unprotected at the back of a ruck, the Scotland Under-20 international pinched possession.
All 30 players briefly paused, Hutchinson included, but with the referee waving play on, his chip forward was spilt by Hooley and the centre gratefully re-gathered for the simplest of scores.
The tries were now flowing and two more in as many minutes kept the game on an even keel as the break approached. Elvis Taione was driven over by the home pack, but immediately from the restart the Wanderers stole back possession and just moments later Reece Marshall burrowed through the Braves’ line.
Hanrahan matched Hooley’s conversion at the other end and then took the Wandies to the front for the first time with a well struck penalty as half-time approached in the blink of an eye.
There was still one last Exeter attack for the visitors to survive though, Matt Jess jinking his way to within five of the line. While Campagnaro could only knock on going for the line again, the scrum went against the head and Kai Horstmann was driven over as the Braves turned to their power game once more.
Given the pace at which the first half was played out, both sides could have been forgiven for coming out a tad slower, but if anything proceedings became even looser in the build-up to Tom Collins’ brilliant solo score.
Exeter looked to be making a breakout from their own 22, but with Hutchinson winning another turnover for his side, counter defence became a stunning counter attack. Collins scooped up, shrugged off fringe defenders and turned Crysander Botha inside out before burning the Namibian full back on the outside.
The pattern of the game continued, Exeter next to score when they perhaps caught their visitors off guard by playing off the top of a lineout instead of driving. Tom Hendrickson took advantage of a huge gap at the tail to cruise under the sticks, but the tit-for-tat try scoring sequence was soon broken when Ben White crashed over on the right just four minutes later.
The flanker took advantage of direct and effective work up the middle by the hosts and for the first time in a thrilling final, a two-score gap had been established.
With the Braves in the ascendency, the deficit soon grew, another driving maul taking Hortsmann over the whitewash and Byron McGuigan weaving under the posts against a Wanderers side now almost entirely made up by Academy faces.
It was to their credit that the towel didn’t go in, but the line breaks and offloads that had come off earlier were no longer sticking, Lewis Ludlam’s flick inside evading the onrushing Ben Nutley.
Instead, it was Exeter who scooped up and when McGuigan made ground down the left, Sam Simmonds’ fresh legs proved too lively for a shattered looking Wanderers defence.
2mins EXETER Try Campagnaro 5-0
12mins WAND Try Elliott 5-5
19mins EXETER Try Sturgess 10-5
22mins WAND Try Hutchinson 10-10
32mins EXETER Try Taione Con Hooley 17-10
34mins WAND Try Marshall Con Hanrahan 17-17
37mins WAND Pen Hanrahan 17-20
40mins EXETER Try Horstmann Con Hooley 24-20
HALF-TIME EXETER 24 WANDERERS 20
42mins WAND Try Collins 24-25
48mins EXETER Try Hendrickson Con Hooley 31-25
52mins EXETER Try White 36-25
59mins EXETER Try Horstmann 41-25
67mins EXETER Try McGuigan Con Hooley 48-25
77mins EXETER Try Simmonds Con Hooley 55-25
FULL-TIME EXETER 55 WANDERERS 25
EXETER Botha; Bodilly, Campagnaro, Hendrickson, Jess; Hooley, Thomas; Sturgess, Taione, Brown, Atkins, Stevenson, Johnson, White, Horstmann
Malton, Woolmore, Owlett, Skinner, Simmonds, Townsend, McGuigan, Laverick
WANDERERS Wilson; Elliott, Hutch, Olver, Collins; Hanrahan, Kessell; Beesley, Marshall, Denman, Paterson (c), Onojaife, Nutley, Ludlam, Bennett
Fish, Hobbs-Awoyemi, Parkins, Moon, Williams, Duchesne, Furbank, Packman
REFEREE Matthew O’Grady