Chiefs 31 Racing 27
Exeter Chiefs 31
Racing 92 27
Mark Stevens at Ashton Gate
Ten years on from a magical night in Bristol, the Exeter Chiefs were once again heading back down the M5 in party mode.
Whereas Championship success in 2010 will forever be remembered, now there is a new high point from which Rob Baxter and his young side can toast the night away.
The Chiefs completed their decade-long rise from English rugby’s second tier to the the top of the northern hemisphere club game by winning the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in dramatic fashion at Ashton Gate.
Baxter’s side overcome previous final heartache to collect their biggest prize of all against a star-studded Racing 92 outfit.
Converted tries from Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds, Harry Williams and Henry Slade were the key highlights in a display, which keeps alive their dreams of a domestic and European double.
Wasps will stand in their way at Twickenham in a week’s time in the Gallagher Premiership final, but for now the Devonians will celebrate their greatest achievement of all.
In what was the first of back-to-back finals for Baxter’s side, the Chiefs leader had his full arsenal of talent at his disposal for the clash against the classy Parisians, whose pre-game plans had been disrupted by a Covid-19 break-out within their squad last week.
Cornishman Jack Nowell returned to the fray having missed the Premiership semi-final win against Bath the week previous. He took over on the wing from the unfortunate Olly Woodburn, whilst Ian Whitten - on his 200th Premiership and Champions Cup outing for the club - came into the centre for Ollie Devoto.
Racing, as expected, were also fully loaded, headed up by danger men Russell, Virimi Vakatawa and Camille Chat, the latter of whom helped to win them a penalty opportunity inside two minutes.
Declining a kick at goal, scrum-half Teddy Iribaren opted for bigger reward in the right corner. Sadly, he spooned his intended kick out on the full, relieving the pressure on the Chiefs in an instance.
It was the first of a catalogue of errors from the Racing No.9, the next of which saw him collared by Nowell, who hounded him down after chasing a kick in behind. Under pressure, he could do nothing but hold onto the ball, gifting the Chiefs a golden opportunity.
Five metres from the visiting line, there are no greater exponents of making the opposition pay than the Chiefs. Cowan-Dickie’s line-out was collected by Jonny Gray and when his fellow forwards amassed around him, it was the Exeter hooker who had spun round to gather the ball again and cross for the score, converted by Joe Simmonds.
It was the perfect start for the Chiefs, who threatened again just moments later when Juan Imhoff was collared just a few yards from his own line by a determined kick chase from the Englishmen.
Camped deep in the Racing 22, the Chiefs had the scent for blood once more. Turning the screw, Iribaren’s loose pass put Russell under pressure and when the Scottish star spilled under pressure, Jonny Hill thought he had touched down before the Racing playmaker for a second score.
Referee Nigel Owens was unsure as to the last hand on the ball, but TV replays judged in favour of Racing and the chance was lost.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to offer the greater threat and when they were afforded another big opportunity, this time there was no mistake as a close-range, tap penalty from Cowan-Dickie saw him offload to Sam Simmonds who, aided by the sizeable bulk of Dave Ewers, was driven over for the score, converted by his younger sibling.
Exeter could not have asked for a better opening quarter, but the threat of Racing was always apparent throughout and in the blink of an eye they reduced the deficit when full-back Simon Zebo was able to collect a torpedo-like pass from Russell to score in the corner.
At the other end, Henry Slade and Jack Maunder combined brilliantly down the right flank, but the latter was scragged by a superb last-gasp tackle from Racing prop Eddy Ben Arous.
Both sides were throwing everything at one another, but it was Racing who were asserting their authority as the half progressed. With Russell pulling the strings more prominently, they hauled themselves back to within touching distances as the dangerous Imhoff grabbed their second, stealing his way through a gap in the Exeter defensive line which had done well to repel a succession of attacking phases.
In truth, it was no more than Racing deserved for their spirited efforts. However, as the half drew to a conclusion, it was the Chiefs who prospered for a third time when a loose kick from Russell was fly-hacked forward by Nowell, creating a subsequent sprint race involving a trio of rapid races. Racing’s cover looked good enough to start with, but when they were hauled into touch, it gifted Baxter’s side the perfect platform from which to strike.
The tried-and-trusted, catch-and-drive was duly repelled by Racing, but when the Chiefs rumbled into their close-range, pick-and-go game, there was to be be no holding them as England international Williams dived over for a third converted score.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 21 RACING 92 12
After what had certainly been a pulsating first 40 minutes of action, the second half had a lot to live up to as Racing quickly introduced Machenaud for Iribaren during the interval. It had been a difficult 40 minutes for the diminutive scrum-half, but his replacement was more than able of causing his own disruption as proved within just minutes of the restart.
From the first blast of referee Owens’ whistle, Racing set about trying to claw back the nine-point lead the Chiefs had accrued. A fast opening saw them position themselves to within sight of the Exeter line, before a slick attack from left to right saw them expose the numbers game, creating space for Irish international Zebo to steal over for his second of the game.
Having bagged the early score they craved, Racing looked set to press again in search of richer rewards. With Vakatawa an ever-willing force in their midfield, they did not have to look far for a notable destruction force.
However, as they look to go wide of another attack deep inside their own half, Russell’s sling-shot pass to the left failed to have the necessary trajectory, allowing Nowell to pluck the ball from the air, before stepping inside and shipping a simple offload to Slade, who was able to ghost over from 10 metres out. Simmonds again converted to ensure Exeter’s fourth maximum haul of the game.
Although it was a decent enough buffer, you sensed the game was never beyond Racing’s reach - and so it proved - as the French giants hit back yet again, this time through hooker Chat, who burrowed his way over from a close-range line-out. Russell netted the extras to leave just two points in it as the game headed into the final 20 minutes.
Both sides took the opportunity to empty their benches and it was replacement Machenaud who cut Exeter’s lead further, landing a penalty after the Chiefs had been pulled up for slowly down the ball in front of their own posts.
Suddenly, the momentum shift was now all with Racing, who were given extra emphasis to attack when - following the interjection of the TV match official - the Chiefs were reduced to 14 men for the final ten minutes when Welsh prop Tomas Francis was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-down.
Racing, as they had done earlier, declined the kickable penalty chance, opting to go for the Exeter jugular. Russell punted to the corner, the French forwards amassed as an eight-man mob, which having been held initially, they allowed their backs to have a crack with a series of raids around the corner. The Chiefs were scrambling left and right, doing everything in their power to withstand the mounting pressure. Racing got to 19 phases of attack, before Chiefs replacement Sam Hidalgo-Clyne - himself a former employ of the Paris-based club - won a match-winning turnover on his own line.
That penalty, coupled with another from the resultant play, saw the Chiefs go from defending on their line to camping themselves midway inside the other half. It was a pivotal moment in the match, but not necessarily the final action of this enthralling match-up.
Having secured possession again, the Chiefs worked their way through the phases themselves, eventually garnering a penalty of their own. Confusion arose around the stoppage, including a mix-up on the stadium clock, but when play did finally resume, up stepped Joe Simmonds to drill the 40 metre kick between the posts.
It sparked scenes of sheer delirium amongst the Chiefs contingent.
Unlike recent final outings, there was to be no late heartache for Baxter’s side. This was their time, this was their moment!
Ten years on from another memorable night in Bristol, this was the true coming of age for Exeter Rugby Club.
All hail the Chiefs!
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell (I Whitten 67-69), H Slade, I Whitten (O Devoto 59), T O'Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt); J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 65); A Hepburn (B Moon 55), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 55), H Williams (T Francis 55); J Gray (S Skinner 59), J Hill; D Ewers, J Vermeulen (J Kirsten 55), S Simmonds. Replacement: (not used): G Steenson
Tries - Cowan-Dickie, S Simmonds, Williams, Slade; Conversions - J Simmonds (4); Penalty - J Simmonds
Yellow Card: Francis
Racing 92: S Zebo (K Beale 65); L Dupichot, V Vakatawa (O Klemenczak 76), H Chavancy (capt), J Imhoff; F Russell, T Iribaren (M Machenaud h/t); E Ben Arous (H Kolingar 51), C Chat (T Baubigny 51), G Henri Colombe (A Oz 51); B Le Roux (D Ryan 67), D Bird; W Lauret, F Sanconnie, A Claassen (B Palu 76).
Tries - Zebo (2), Imhoff, Chat; Conversions - Russell (2); Penalty - Machenaud
Referee: N Owens