Exeter’s playoff hopes extinguished by Leicester and Mike Brown try

<span>Ollie Hassell-Collins – one of Leicester’s try scorers – is tackled by Exeter’s Dan John.</span><span>Photograph: Simon King/ProSports/Shutterstock</span>
Ollie Hassell-Collins – one of Leicester’s try scorers – is tackled by Exeter’s Dan John.Photograph: Simon King/ProSports/Shutterstock

Two truths concerning the Premiership were illuminated by east Midlands sunshine on the final day of the season. The first was supplied by Exeter, whose disjointed show proved  that eight months of hard slog counts for very little if the playoffs are not reached. The second was delivered by Leicester, whose attacking zeal proved that without prolonged consistency, even slick performances like this one cannot wash away the regret of a sub-standard campaign.

With four tries and a morale-boosting win in front of a nearly full stadium, Leicester will naturally be the happier of the two groups. But even their supporters will wonder why a side stacked with so many Test players – including two World Cup winners – closed out their shift with nine wins and nine defeats.

Related: Immanuel Feyi-Waboso: ‘The Lions is every rugby player’s dream – it would be unbelievable’

“There’s always that [sense of what-if] you finish off with, after a good performance at home,” said Leicester’s head coach, Dan Kelleher. “No one has died. The sun will come up tomorrow.”

At least those supporters had their win. For Exeter’s fans, this was a gut punch. Their team arrived with great expectation and knew a victory would go a long way to securing a spot in the playoffs. Though Rob Baxter’s developing project has exceeded expectations, when the race is lost at the final hurdle, pride is interwoven with disappointment.

“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,” Baxter said of the season as a whole. “Most people said we’d be scrabbling around the bottom of the Premiership. There’s been growth and learning. Today was really important.”

It started so well for the visitors. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, explosive on the rush defence and hungry off his wing, scored the opening try on eight minutes. Worked off the back of a lineout on the left, and stitched together by Olly Woodburn on the loop, it was a move that gave them belief. But cohesion was lacking from both sides. Knock-ons and misplaced passes were regular features and the chaos seemed to suit Leicester who were aided by Exeter’s exuberance on the rush. When it works, this defensive ploy strangles scrum-halves and shuts down ball-carriers. When it misfires, as it did here, gaps yawn in the line. “At one stage it looked like we had 15 guys trying to win the game on their own,” Baxter said.

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Ollie Hassell-Collins was the first Tiger to pounce. What began as a scrum in Leicester’s half ended with the young winger shrugging off two weak tackles before rumbling over in the far corner. Jack van Poortvliet was next on the board. After a stiff carry from Freddie Steward, the scrum-half picked up a loose ball at an uncontested ruck, shimmied round two defenders and blitzed past a third. Handré Pollard’s slip did not stop him from converting to open a 20-10 lead.

Two yellow cards for deliberate knock-ons – first from Woodburn on the half-hour, then from Feyi-Waboso just before half-time – made Exeter’s task that much tougher. With Feyi-Waboso still in the sin-bin, Tommy Reffell scored shortly after the restart having been set up by Hassell-Collins.

The 2022 champions’ dominance was confirmed when Mike Brown  slammed down Leicester’s fourth after an initial burst from George Martin and a surge from Steward. Two of Exeter’s replacements – Dan Frost and Ross Vintcent – notched a try apiece either side of a Jasper Wiese red card, a fitting final act for the departing South African who won the fans’ player-of-the-match award.

However, there would be no miracle comeback nor a late entry into the semi-finals.