Braves win A League title

Exeter Braves 55

Northampton Wanderers 25

Mark Stevens at Sandy Park

A storming second half showing saw Exeter Braves claim victory in this season’s Aviva Premiership A League final against Northampton Wanderers at Sandy Park. Triumphant back in 2012, Ricky Pellow’s side repeated the feat on home soil with another impressive display that yielded nine tries for the Devon club. Experienced skipper Kai Horstmann led the way with two scores, while there were also touchdowns for Michele Campagnaro, Brett Sturgess, Elvis Taione, Ben White, Tom Hendrickson, Byron McGuigan and Sam Simmonds. Former Northampton youngster Will Hooley did the rest of the damage by booting over five conversions.

Northampton, it has to be said, played their part in an entertaining final, keeping in contention for the first half at least thanks to tries of their own through Jamie Elliott, Rory Hutchinson and Reece Marshall. Winger Tom Collins added a fourth just after the break, while JJ Hanrahan helped himself to five points with the boot. It was, however, never enough to dampen a magical day for the Braves and in particular long-serving prop Sturgess, who was one of a number of players making their final run-out at Sandy Park. Having brushed aside Newcastle Falcons 48-15 in the semi-final the week previous, Pellow made just one change to his starting XV for this final assignment.

It came in the front-row where Alex Brown was brought in at tight-head in place of Carl Rimmer, who 24 hours earlier had helped the Chiefs return to second spot in the Premiership with victory over Wasps. The Wanderers, fresh from their own impressive last four victory over defending champions Saracens Storm, were equally as strong, parading a clutch of first team stars, headed up by skipper Michael Paterson and Irish fly-half Hanrahan.

Roared on by a bumper Bank Holiday crowd, it was the Braves who were quickest out of the blocks, opening the scoring inside three minutes with the game’s opening try. Working a catch-and-drive line-out in from the right touchline, the home side masterfully fed the ball along their back division to the waiting Campagnaro, who powered his way past two defenders to score. Exeter held the lead for just ten minutes as in their first meaningful attack, they probed down field into the Braves half before Elliott was released on the blindside, allowing the winger to scamper unopposed down the right touchline to claim the score.

With little to choose between either side in an entertaining contest, the Braves regained the lead on 19 minutes when determined work from the home side saw them drive deep into enemy territory before the ball was shipped wide to the right to England international Tom Johnson, whose looping pass found Sturgess who, lurking with intent in the corner, did the rest with a simple finish.

Again, the Braves could not hang onto their slender lead as back came the visitors, claiming their second of the afternoon in somewhat strange circumstances.

Although referee Matt O’Grady appeared to be telling both sides the ball was still in the base of an Exeter ruck, Northampton scrum-half Tom Kessell picked an opportune moment to steal the ball from under the gaze of opposite number Haydn Thomas – and in turn feed centre Hutchinson, who was able to coast over the whitewash with little resistance.

The nip-and-tuck nature of the contest showed no sign of abating as the half drew to a close as first the Braves added a third try, Tongan hooker Taione finishing off a well-drilled catch-and-drive line-out for Hooley to convert, before the Wanderers countered straight from the restart with a score of their own through Marshall, who was able to dot down from close range after Sion Bennett had been initially halted by a decent cover tackle from Hooley.

Hanrahan slotted the conversion to Marshall’s score to tie things up at 17-all before the former Munster back slotted a straight forward penalty from in front of the posts after the Braves had strayed offside in midfield.

With the half all but up, however, it was the turn of the Braves to wrestle back the lead. Winning a scrum penalty deep inside the Northampton 22, they kicked for the corner and having failed to get anywhere with the initial drive, the secondary wave of attack proved more fruitful as over piled Horstmann for the converted score.

HALF TIME EXETER BRAVES 24 NORTHAMPTON WANDERERS 20

After a ding-dong first 40 minutes, any hopes the second period would be a much quieter affair were dashed inside two minutes as Northampton regained the initiative with their fourth try of the contest. Little appeared to be on initially for the Wanderers as they eeked their way up field, but when Collins picked up a loose ball from a ruck on halfway, the Northampton flyer turned on the gas to race clear of the Exeter cover.

Still will plenty to do, the winger took on home full-back Chrysander Botha on the outside, outpacing to the line for the score which Hanrahan was unable to convert.

That, however, would be as good as it got for the visitors as the Braves slowly kicked into gear and hit their rivals with a powerful second half showing. Home centre Hendrickson got in on the scoring act on 48 minutes as he cut a lovely line off a line-out move to race through the middle of the Northampton midfield and score under the sticks with Hooley converting.

Four minutes later and the Devonians were at it again, flanker White the beneficiary on this occasion as he emerged from a mass of bodies in the right corner to at last give the home side a semblance of breathing space.

Now in control of proceedings, the Braves upped the ante yet further. Using their powerful pack to position them into key areas, it came as no surprise when Horstmann was driven over for his second of the game following a well crafted line-out move.

Hooley banged over the extras to that score and Exeter’s next just past the hour mark when replacement McGuigan showed some outstanding foot work whilst on the run to leave a trail of destruction behind him to make it 48-25.

With victory already in the bag, the Braves put the seal on their special day when the dangerous McGuigan again caused havoc in the visiting ranks, skipping clear of a brace of tacklers before offering a simple offload to the onrushing Sam Simmonds, who was able to trot under the posts. Fly-half Hooley administered the last rites to his former club, plundering a simple conversion to cap off a famous day for the Braves.

Braves: C Botha; M Bodilly, M Campagnaro (B McGuigan 49), T Hendrickson, M Jess; W Hooley, H Thomas (S Townsend 56); B Sturgess (J Woolmore 66), E Taione (S Malton 49), A Brown (J Owlett 72); O Atkins, L Stevenson (S Skinner 49); T Johnson, B White (S Simmonds 60), K Horstmann (capt). Tries – Campagnaro, Sturgess, Taione, Horstmann (2), Hendrickson, White, McGuigan, S Simmonds; Conversions – Hooley (5)

Wanderers: J Wilson (H Packman 57); J Elliott (T Duschene 77), R Hutchinson, S Olver, T Collins; JJ Hanrahan (G Furbank 4-9, 66), T Kessell; M Beesley (D Hobbs- Awoyemi, 57), R Marshall (M Williams 53), G Denman (A Parkins 59); M Paterson (capt), J Onojaife (A Moon 67); B Nutley (J Fish 67), L Ludlam, S Bennett. Tries – Elliott, Hutchinson, Marshall, Collins; Conversion – Hanrahan; Penalty – Hanrahan

Referee: M O’Grady

Attendance: 4,504