Chiefs 28 Toulouse 18
Exeter Chiefs 28
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
On and off the field, something special is brewing with the Exeter Chiefs.
In these darks days, where the current Covid-19 pandemic often dominates the daily headlines, for one minute let's step back and take stock of the rise of this morale-boosting Devon club.
Despite the terraces being empty, other than that of European Rugby's corporate branding, this was a day to savour for all those who follow the fortunes of Rob Baxter's side.
This is a club who are on the rise, desperate to establish themselves as a force, not only in the English game, but that of Europe as well.
Some 26 years ago, Exeter Rugby Club were plying their trade in the old Courage Division Four against the likes Aspatria, Liverpool St Helens, as well as local foes Redruth and Plymouth Albion.
At the same time, French visitors Toulouse - making their first-ever visit to Devon shores - were winning the inaugural Heineken Cup, defeating Cardiff 21-18 at the Arms Park.
Since then, Toulouse have won three more European gongs and are level on four with Leinster, whose defeat to Saracens last weekend denied them the chance of adding to their haul.
However, times are changing and on a sun-kissed day in the Westcountry, the Chiefs - running out for a maiden semi-final showing in the competition did not disappoint. Baxter's side set up a final showdown with Racing 92 next month, courtesy of scores from Harry Williams (2), Sam Simmonds and Joe Simmonds, who also plundered four conversions.
Toulouse, who offered a genuine threat throughout, countered with scores of their own through Alban Placines and Matthis Lebel; plus a further eight points from the boot of full-back Thomas Ramos, but it was never enough to thwart a Chiefs side, who grew as the contest progressed.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter made one change to his starting line-up, drafting in Scottish international Sam Skinner to the back-row in place of Jacques Vermeulen, who had scored two tries in the previous week's quarter-final success over Northampton Saints.
Toulouse, meanwhile, paraded a star-studded line-up which included former All Blacks Jerome Kaino and Charlie Faumuina, French starlets Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Ramos, as well as star attraction Cheslin Kolbe on the wing.
With conditions virtually perfect, both sides tore into each other from the outset. The frenetic pace was evident from the first blast of Andrew Brace's whistle, but it was the visitors who stuck first, Ramos landing a routine penalty after home centre Ian Whitten had been penalised for not releasing at the tackle.
Moments later and French international Ramos - the competition's top points-scorer - was doubling his tally, adding a second penalty as the hosts once again fell foul of the officials for going off their feet in front of the posts.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs would have craved, but there was no panic within the ranks. Instead, they continued to go about their business in much the same manner they have the Gallagher Premiership this season. A plethora of heavyweight collisions dominated the opening quarter, before the home side finally started to click into gear.
Whitten's burst down the left cause mayhem in the Toulouse defence, but with Luke Cowan-Dickie doing his best to keep pace with his team-mate as he careered down the touchline, sadly the chance came and went when Sam Simmonds was penalised for holding on.
Undeterred, it was enough to show the threat of the home side - and when they were afforded another opportunity just past the half-hour mark - there was to be no mistake this time from Baxter's braves. Making the most of turnover ball in centre field, they used their forwards to propel themselves to within sniffing distance of the Toulouse line. Initially, the wave of attacks were repelled, but when a second storm followed, the French defensive dam burst it's banks and over went Williams for his first try, converted by Joe Simmonds.
Home joy, however, proved short-lived as Toulouse struck back almost immediately. Kolbe and Dupont led the charge down the right flank, only for the ball to be masterfully worked back across the lush Sandy Park turf to replacement Placines who, with acres of room to operate, was able to squeeze his way over in the left corner for the score.
With little to choose between either side as the game headed towards the interval, it was the Chiefs who nudged themselves back in front with virtually the last play of the half. Again, another decent turnover in midfield allowed England duo Henry Slade and Jack Nowell to combine, before the muscle up front again took charge, pounding their way to the whitewash, where Sam Simmonds snuck over for another try, converted by younger brother Joe.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 TOULOUSE
Had punters been able to pack into the stadium, they would not have been disappointed at the 40-minute offering they had just witnessed. Instead, many were forced to watch from home - or other locations around the world - as the Chiefs reassembled for the second period, knowing they were just 40 minutes away from bagging a first European Final date.
As was the case in the first half, it was a ferocious start to proceedings as both sides once again lit the fuse paper, exploding into on-field action.
Ramos saw a lengthy penalty chance fall just short four minutes after the restart, before the hugely impressive Jonny Hill stole a visiting line-out just five metres from his own line as the French outfit looked primed to strike.
Lock Hill has been sensational since rugby restarted last month and with England head coach Eddie Jones, as well as British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland amongst those allowed inside the stadium, his on-field display, together with his blossoming partnership with Jonny Gray, will again have ticked a lot of boxes.
Toulouse continued to threaten, despite some heavy line-speed pressure from the Chiefs, who were living off the increased volume of their non-playing team-mates in the stadium. Yohann Huget went close when he latched onto a cross-field kick from Ntamack, before the Chiefs flexed their own muscles in attack.
Tearing around the place like wild dogs, Stuart Hogg's break from deep almost released Jack Maunder for a certain try, before the forwards again took charge. Gray, Williams, Dave Ewers and Sam Simmonds all went close, using the tried-and-trusted, pick-and-go game before Williams, the latest to enter the club's Hall of Centurions, drove over for his second converted score of the game.
The try had given the Chiefs a modicum of breathing space, but they weren't finished there as skipper Simmonds saved the best for last, the young fly-half latching onto possession, before stepping inside two defenders and galloping his way under the sticks.
Had there been a full-house in attendance, the roof would have been blown off. Instead, we had to settle for the cries of the home bench and their mates behind them.
It mattered not, the Chiefs were already one foot into the final, and although Lebel claimed a late consolation, finishing off good work from centre Peta Ahki, this was a defining moment in the history of the Devonians. As one, they masterfully saw out the dying embers of the contest, safe in the knowledge they must make the short trip up the M5 to Bristol next month for a final showdown against Paris-based Racing 92.
Ten years on from events in the same city, where Baxter's men got promoted into the promised land of the Premiership, can they now follow it up with their greatest triumph to date?
Chiefs: S Hogg, J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten (O Devoto 67), T O'Flaherty, J Simmonds (capt), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 60); A Hepburn (B Moon 67), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 60), H Williams (T Francis 60); J Gray (D Armand 67), J Hill; D Ewers, S Skinner (D Dennis 76), S Simmonds. Replacement (not used): G Steenson
Tries - Williams (2), S Simmonds, J Simmonds; Conversion - J Simmonds (4)
Toulouse: T Ramos, Y Huget (M Lebel 60), S Guitoune, P Ahki, C Kolbe (Z Holmes 67); R Ntamack, A Dupont (A Bales 71); C Baille, J Marchand (P Mauvaka 60), C Faumuina (D Aldegheri 51); R Arnold (A Placines 23), J Tekori (L Madaule 68); J Kaino (capt), F Cros, S Tolofua. Replacement (not used): R Neti.
Tries - Placines, Lebel; Conversion - Ramos; Penalties - Ramos (2)
Referee: A Brace