The second Premiership final to go to extra time was won for the first-time champions Exeter Chiefs by a nerveless penalty kick from Gareth Steenson, the long-serving fly-half who has been with the Devon club since their pre-promotion days in the second division.
The teams fought each other almost to a standstill before a collapsed scrum with three minutes left to play gave Steenson his shot at glory and Exeter's starting skipper, with club captain Jack Yeandle having begun the match on the bench, made no mistake to settle a stunning, epic contest in baking conditions at Twickenham.
Exeter came into their second final in succession with memories of their slow start last year, when they were beaten 28-20 by Saracens, and convinced the familiarity with the drive-in to Twickenham and other aspects of this showpiece occasion would serve them well this time around.
The theory appeared to hold true as the Chiefs skewered Wasps with two cool and cleverly-fashioned tries in the opening half hour.
Wasps’ director of rugby Dai Young had predicted trouble at the scrum for his side, with commendable candour, and so it proved with the first of three penalties against his pack in the early exchanges.
They enabled Exeter to established base camps at line-outs in the Wasps 22, and from one of these they grabbed the first try with 13 minutes gone.
Each element of a training-ground move worked perfectly as Exeter’s scrum-half Stuart Townsend made a decoy run on the short side while Kai Horstmann caught the throw and delivered it back to Luke Cowan Dickie as the hooker peeled to the left. That was the cue for Nowell to spring the trap, cutting against the grain to hurtle past Wasps’ openside flanker Thomas Young near the tail of the line and burst past Josh Bassett for a try converted by Steenson.
It was the kind of barrelling finish Nowell will hope to replicate on tour this summer after he has joined up with the British & Irish Lions squad tomorrow.
There are two Wasps in the party to fly on Monday, too - Elliot Daly and James Haskell – but there they were thankful to a non-Lion, the England No.8, Nathan Hughes for a series of pummelling tackles as Exeter looked very confident with ball in hand
The club who spent long years building in the second division before promotion to the Premiership in 2010 appeared ready to seize the day as full-back Phil Dollman finished their second try in the 28th minute, on the end of a fine carry over the gailine from a scrum by centre Ollie Devoto.
Steenson converted again and with Wasps having only a penalty goal by Jimmy Gopperth to show, the six-times league champions were struggling for a foothold, and missing the incursions of their injured marquee Australian back Kurtley Beale.
Wasps had a couple of good positions in the Exeter 22 where they were unable – or not committed enough – to get the ball to Christian Wade, their Premiership top try scorer on the right wing.
When Wade raided infield in the 34th minute, the transfer to him from Danny Cipriani was bungled, while a missed kick to touch and a punt out on the full by the fly-half, and a misdirected effort from Daly, added to the error count.
It took until first-half injury time for Wasps – reinvented and revitalised since tekir move to Coventry three years ago – to justify their fine attacking reputation.
Joe Launchbury caught a line-out near the Exeter 22-metre line, and hooker Tommy Taylor and scrum-half Dan Robson sliced through the heart of the Chiefs’ cover, and Gopperth – who scored an impressive nine tries as his side finished top of the table to Exeter’s second place in the regular season – was on hand for the finish.
Gopperth’s conversion had Wasps trailing by just four points at the break, and that became a three-point lead three minutes after the resumption.
Exeter had a gap in defence with Dollman down injured as they were turned over at a ruck, Hughes charged away and Gopperth fed Wade whose eyes lit up near the touchline.
A chip ahead took care of Steenson, and although both Wade and Exeter’s Olly Woodburn slipped as they pursued the bouncing ball, the very rapid Daly was on hand to score, with Gopperth adding the conversion, in off the post.
Exeter replaced Townsend and the entire front row – with Yeandle among the new faces – on 50 minutes, looking for a shift in momentum.
The fans from the south west did their best, with loud and long choruses of the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ chant, but Wasps have prospered all season with pace, and Exeter were straining to hold on to them.
Gopperth, whose parents had flown in from New Zealand to watch him, kicked a penalty for 20-14 with 53 minutes gone.
Now it was Exeter missing touch kicks, with one by Dollman’s Henry Slade failing to find an ambitious target in the way his mighty kick had done, late in last weekend’s semi-final win over Saracens.
In keeping with an excellent final, Exeter roared back, with Parling’s drive bringing a penalty for not releasing that Steenson converted form 35 metres.
Then there was an amazing sequence of 34 phases for the Chiefs in which Willie le Roux made a crucial tackle out wide for Wasps, hailed by full-throated roars from their supporters reminiscent if Icelandic football fans at last year-s European Championship.
Referee JP Doyle brought play back for a penalty to Exeter deep in the Wasps 22, and Exeter chose to scrummage, with 10 minutes remaining on the clock.
Haskell crept round with fine timing to hold Thomas Waldrom at the base and eventually another Exeter put-in was called, in the shadow of Wasps’ posts at Twickenham’s sun-bathed south end.
It was a position calling for precision under the severest pressure but Waldrom at No.8 was presented with untidy ball and Guy Thompson, on for Young in the back row, dived in to grab possession.
A superb covering run by Wasps’ replacement scrum-half Joe Simpson snuffed out another Exeter attack.
The unfortunate Michele Campagnaro knocked on with his first touch as a substitute, as Exeter continuing to probe desperately for a gap.
But Exeter got their chance to force extra time – reprising the 2014 final between Northampton and Saracens – when Hughes dabbled at a ruck, ignoring referee Doyle’s shouted instruction to “leave it”, and Steenson’s 30-metre kick head on to the posts sailed through with just 28 seconds showing on the clock.
In extra time of ten minutes each way, with the teams level on tries scored which meant a place-kick competition was in the offing if nothing changed, Cipriani’s long touch-finder gave Wasps a great line-out position but Ashley Johnson’s throw to Launchbury was disrupted by Parling, and eventually the chance was lost out wide.
In the second period of 10, Exeter went through 20-plus phases again but Sam Simmonds’ claim to a try was turned down by television match official Rowan Kitt, with prop Simon McIntyre getting his body under the flanker.
That meant a five-metre scrum from Exeter, 15 metres in from the left touchline.
It was reset once but, with just three minutes left, Wasps’ front row dropped on Matt Mullan’s side – the loosehead had returned to the field to fill in for the injured tighthead Marty Moore – and Steenson lined up the most prestigious kick of his nine-year career with the Chiefs.
A confident swipe of the right boot from the Ulster-born No.10 had Exeter 23-20 ahead and poised on the border of dreamland.
And it fell to Campagnaro, the Italian, to fish the ball from one last pile of exhausted bodies, and kick the ball dead to finally settle England’s club-championship title.
Wasps: tries: Gopperth, Daly; conversions: Gopperth 2; penalties: Gopperth 2.
Exeter Chiefs: tries: Nowell, Dollman; conversions: Steenson 2; penalties: Steenson 3.
Wasps: W le Roux; C Wade, E Daly, J Gopperth, J Bassett; D Cipriani, D Robson (J Simpson 58); M Mullan (S McIntyre 58), T Taylor (A Johnson 65), P Swainston (M Moore 27; Mullan 83), J Launchbury (capt), M Symons (K Myall 58), J Haskell, T Young (G Thompson 65), N Hughes (Thompson 19-26).
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman (H Slade 46); J Nowell, I Whitten, O Devoto (M Campagnaro 77), O Woodburn; G Steenson (capt), S Townsend (W Chudley 50); B Moon (C Rimmer 50), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 50), H Williams (T Francis 50), D Dennis (S Simmonds 60), G Parling, K Horstmann (M Lees 53), D Armand, T Waldrom.
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU)