Both Bristol and the Exeter Chiefs have been left with a good chance to gain promotion to Guinness Premiership tonight after both sides failed to stamp their authority on the nervy 9-6 first leg victory for Exeter last week.
And though either side would probably settle for a one-point victory if it meant gaining the £4 million promotion to the top flight of English Rugby, the scoreline cannot be ignored, after both sides spurned kickable penalties in favour of try attempts in what was a fairly lacklustre first leg.
Exeter had started well in front of their largest ever home crowd at Sandy Park, reaching full capacity at 10,000 fans, taking the game to Bristol and wining most of the early collisions, breakdowns and scrums, and setting a pattern for the day by stealing opposition lineouts.
Exeter’s fly-half, Gareth Steenson, put his precision kicking to good use pinning Bristol back into their own 22. But aside from this minor tactical nous neither side was able to produce a decisive spark and in the end the match became a display of choreographed set pieces and unforced errors.
With no precedent for a two-legged play-off final both sides may have be suffering from indecision, not knowing how best to gain tactical advantage; going all out in an attempt to rack up the tries, or playing it safe and keeping the tactics hidden away for the final leg.
Whatever the reasoning though this disjointed approach has done neither side any favours in a contest where every point is going to count, least of all Exeter, who on the run of the first match merited a larger lead, and now face a tough task away at Bristol.
Ahead of the second leg, Exeter may be the in form team, racking up an impressive 235 points in their last five games and, when all is said and done, winning the first leg, but the Premiership experience of Bristol could be a decisive factor when the pressure begins to mount this evening.
At the start of the season many were expecting Bristol’s time in the championship to be merely a temporary arrangement, much like it had been for Northampton and Harlequins before them, and Bristol still retain a number of quality players throughout the squad, not least club captain and second row stalwart Roy Winters.
But Exeter have emerged as worthy rivals for a place in the Premiership. Both sides have had confirmation that they have met the minimum standards required for Premiership status, meaning that promotion for the winner tonight is pretty much guaranteed.
With the score so close, and the stakes so high, it may be impossible to call the result of the second leg. But what does seem certain is that neither side can afford to hold anything back and that this time round the game will boil down to more than pre-rehearsed set pieces and indecision.
By Sam Francis