Premiership Immortals - The Debate ShowAug 29
Underdogs Harlequins and reigning champions Exeter Chiefs will go toe-to-toe for the right to be crowned kings of English rugby as the Gallagher Premiership reaches its thrilling conclusion at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.
Will Rob Baxter's indomitable Devonians retain their title to go back-to-back in the league, or will Quins and their eclectic cast of entertainers upset the odds at Rugby HQ?
Read on for a full preview featuring all the key talking points ahead of the biggest game in club rugby.
Hogg out as Baxter sticks with Nowell
Long-serving director of rugby Baxter has stuck to his guns and opted to bench Lions full-back-in-waiting Stuart Hogg less than eight months after the Scot helped Exeter win a second Premiership title in his debut season with the club.
Defending champions Exeter will take part in English rugby's Twickenham showpiece for a sixth-successive season as they look to retain the title for the first time in the club's history, but all the talk will be about team selection as the Devonians return to Rugby HQ.
Only three teams have managed to go back-to-back in the Premiership era - Leicester Tigers in 2010, Wasps in 2005 and Saracens, twice, in 2016 and 2019. Should Chiefs join that elite group of teams with victory on Saturday it would undoubtedly underline their status as one of the greatest teams in the history of English rugby.
With rugby immortality in touching distance, it seems unfathomable that they could complete their mission without one of British rugby's greatest talents after Hogg was left on the bench for the second weekend running after local hero Jack Nowell made a triumphant return to action in the semi-final against Sale.
How to watch Premiership final
TV and live stream information for the Premiership final between Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs.
Nowell has spent much of the current campaign sidelined with a string of untimely injuries, but the England and British & Irish Lions star showed no signs of rustiness in a try-scoring return to action at full-back.
The decision to omit Scotland captain and Lions hopeful Hogg sent shockwaves around Sandy Park before Nowell crossed for two tries in a 40-30 win.
On Friday morning Baxter revealed he would be sticking with a back three of Nowell, Tom O'Flaherty and Alex Cuthbert, a trio that all crossed for tries last weekend.
Baxter admits Hogg, who was named on a five-man shortlist for last year's European Player of the Year award, has been "angry and disappointed" by his shock omission.
“He [Hogg] has been very good this week, very angry, very frustrated in all the right ways and that is what I expect," said Baxter.
“I don’t expect a competitor, a successful, professional sportsman and almost like a world-renowned player, I don’t expect him to be happy with not being in the team coming into big games.
"He is delighted for Jack to get back fit. He knows the injury scenario Jack has had and then to play very well he is delighted for him and at the same time, he is gutted not to be in the team.
"He is dealing with that how I would expect any rational human to deal with it and he is getting on with things and he looks to me like he is preparing to do whatever he can to help the team win a Premiership trophy.”
Meanwhile the combined eight-game suspension for forward duo Dave Ewers and Sam Skinner means both men will also miss this weekend's final and their absence will once again add fuel to the fire as Exeter prepare to face one of the competition's most in-form outfits.
Reflecting on the prospect of facing a red-hot Quins outfit, Nowell said: “They’ll be dangerous. I think a lot of people expected Bristol to be there, so that result shows what they are all about.
"They have quality players and they are a good side, so we know we’ll need to turn up next week."
Can Marcus Smith take centre stage?
How Exeter marshall Harlequins' mercurial fly-half will go a long way to deciding who comes out on top at Twickenham.
His dazzling form and metronomic record with the boot have been instrumental in Quins' return to the play-offs after a seven-year absence, and all eyes will be on Smith as the Londoners make the short trip Twickenham for a first final since 2012.
The season began with lingering questions around the Quins playmaker's consistency and reliability in defence, but Smith has silenced his naysayers in style.
The 24-year-old playmaker is the little general in Quins' swashbuckling outfit and a first Premiership winners' medal would cap off a remarkable year for one of English rugby's hottest properties.
Quins have scored more Premiership points than any other team this term, averaging 32 a game.
While only Exeter have racked up more tries, Quins have played with style and panache since the depature of head coach Paul Gustard back in January, and Smith has pulled the strings as master of ceremonies.
In a breakthrough season for the stand-off, Smith amassed 270 points, including eight tries, earning him the Premiership Golden Boot award for the first time in his fledgling career and rumours of a Lions call up.
Smith also has the honour of most conversions in the league season, narrowly edging out Exeter Chiefs’ Joe Simmonds, who he will line up against on Saturday afternoon.
How Smith handles the intensity of the spotlight in his maiden appearance on English rugby's biggest stage will be a great test of his billing as the next Jonny Wilkinson.
Sensational Simmonds' Lions audition
Having starred in Exeter's league and European Cup double-winning campaign last year the number eight has gone from strength to strength in 2021.
Indeed the Chiefs forward's game has reached new heights with a record-breaking try-scoring spree that could well earn him a place in Warren Gatland's Lions Test plans.
Sam has been phenomenal this year
- Ugo Monye
Undeterred by his ongoing omission from Eddie Jones' England plans, the 26-year-old has used his estrangement from the international scene as motivation to spearhead Exeter's charge for back-to-back Premiership crowns.
In May he scored a hat-trick in front of Jones to break Christian Wade's record for the most tries in a single season.
His current tally stands at 20, eight more than his nearest challenger Danny Care, and few would bet against him adding to that number as Exeter prepare to lock horns with Quins.
The Torquay-born forward has fond memories of playing Saturday's foes, scoring a hat-trick as the Chiefs kicked off their title defence in style with a 33-3 victory at the Stoop back in round one.
“Sam has been phenomenal this year. I think he started the season fuelled by bitter disappointment, but he has focused on it in the right way, to become a record-breaker," said Ugo Monye.
“He has excelled in a year where it has been tough for all players in Gallagher Premiership Rugby, with back-to-back seasons and not much time off. But he hasn’t let off from being European player of the year last season to Premiership player of the year this season, which is outstanding.
“His season has been one of the best individual seasons in Premiership history. I think when you are breaking any sort of record, it has to be put down as a memorable year.
“He has smashed the try record - not only beaten it but smashed it. That is the kind of form he has been in.
“It is unbelievable when you consider just how many talented players we have in Gallagher Premiership Rugby, and yet he has been the shining star, among a galaxy of superstars."
A try-scoring return to Twickenham in a third Premiership final victory would make for ideal preparation for Simmonds' tilt at a Lions Test starting berth.
Unfinished business for Care at Twickenham
It's been a bitter-sweet year for Harlequins' veteran scrum-half Danny Care.
Once a mainstay in Eddie Jones' England plans, the Leeds-born half-back was omitted from the Australian's 2019 World Cup and has not pulled on the Red Rose since, despite there being no clear candidate for the number nine shirt.
England's loss has been Harlequins' gain and the 34-year-old is in the form of his life as he prepares to make an emotional return to Twickenham.
It was testament to his form that failure to make Gatland's Lions touring party felt like a disappointment.
After a season of unprecedented highs and lows, Care is one of four Harlequins players who can become two-time Premiership champions with the club having been a part of the club's 2012-winning vintage.
Most Premiership tries 2020/21
Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs) - 20 tries
Danny Care (Harlequins) - 12 tries
Josh Bassett (Wasps) - 9 tries
Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins) - 9 tries
Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks) - 9 tries
Having won 10 of their last 14 league games since changing head coach in January, Care is determined to cap off an unprecedented season with an extraordinary achievement that didn't seem possible at the turn of the year.
"It will be really easy for us to go to Twickenham on Saturday and give it a crack and go: 'Look how far we've come. What a season [we've had] with everyone writing us off,'" Care told the BBC.
"I am not having that and a lot of the boys aren't having that. This is the year to win the Premiership. I'm not getting any younger.
"I will do whatever I can to help the boys lift the trophy this weekend."
"We're massive underdogs. We know that," continued the 34-year-old. "But we're going to embrace it and give it our absolute all to try to make some unbelievable history.
"We're going to Twickenham, our second home. We have the walk over from The Stoop, which felt so special nine years ago. We get to do that again."