Chiefs 33 La Rochelle 14
Exeter Chiefs 33
La Rochelle 14
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter’s European adventure will continue into April at least after the Chiefs ensured themselves of home advantage when the competition kicks back into life at the quarter-final stage.
For only the second time in the club’s history, Devon’s finest advanced into the last eight with this victory over visiting La Rochelle.
After a somewhat sluggish first half, one in which first half scores from Luke Cowan-Dickie and Dave Ewers were cancelled out by a Kind Murimurivalu effort and a penalty try, Rob Baxter’s side produced a dominant second half showing to run in tries through Sam Simmonds (2) and Stuart Townsend.
In truth, the Chiefs could have added to their tally with Stuart Hogg having good reason to bemoan some of the action of his team-mates, who failed to deliver on what would have been at least two walk-in scores.
As it was, it mattered not. The Chiefs are not only in the last eight, but they will be on home soil against one of Europe’s elite.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter was buoyed by the return of Harry Williams, Dave Dennis, Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds to his pack of forwards, while behind Jack Maunder took over in the absence of the injured Nic White, while Sam Hill got the nod over Ollie Devoto in the centre.
With a faint hope of qualification, the visitors arrived in the Westcountry with a decent enough array of talent, particularly up front where they opted for a heavyweight pack of forwards to try and combat Exeter’s known threat at set-piece.
Early on, La Rochelle were sprightly. They had a real eagerness in defence, where their line-speed was causing the home side to force a series of passes out wide. Joe Simmonds was lucky that Arthur Retiere did not pick off one of his intended offloads, the La Rochelle flyer knocking on as he attempted to collect the floated pass.
The Chiefs, though, were beginning to find their feet and with 12 minutes on the clock, they opened the scoring with the game’s opening try. Skipper Dennis took the line-out just inside the visitors 22, his fellow forwards assembled around him, before Cowan-Dickie squirmed his way over the whitewash for the score, which was converted by Joe Simmonds.
The lead, however, proved short-lived as the visitors drew level inside two minutes. A charging run from prop Uini Antonio saw him make decent yards through the middle before he fed the ball to the dangerous Vincent Rattez. Still with work to do, the full-back chipped in behind, creating a sprint for possession alongside Hogg.
Thankfully, the Scotsman was on hand to save the day for the Chiefs, but his touchdown in goal meant a scrum just five metres out for the Frenchmen. With the platform to go either way, Ronan O’Gara’s side went to the left, working space for Ihaia West to fizz a pass wide to the left to Murimurivalu. Still with plenty to do, the Fijian showed good strength to hold off at least two home defenders, before dotting down in the left corner. West obliged with a sublime conversion from wide out to restore parity.
It was proving a lively opening quarter, but it was the Chiefs who regained their lead when Hogg lead a spirited offensive through the middle. The newly-named Scotland captain sped his way through the heart of the La Rochelle rearguard, only to be felled just short of the try-line. The calvary was close at hand, probing again with a series of close-range, pick-and-go drives.
A rogue hand into the ruck gave the Chiefs a penalty, which they declined to kick, opting instead for greater reward. Cowan-Dickie tapped the ball, the forwards assembled once again, this time driving Ewers over by the sticks for a second converted score.
Again, La Rochelle refused to lie down and in their next attack down field, they looked to go wide with an attack. Hogg was alert to the danger as Geoffrey Doumayrou looked to pass back inside to Rattez, but in attempting to nab the ball, he was adjudged to have deliberately knocked the ball on.
Irish referee Frank Murphy had no hesitation in sending the Exeter No.15 to the sidelines for ten minutes, but that wasn’t the end of proceedings. Having sent Hogg packing, he then asked to review footage of the attack and, following a quick conflab with the TV match official, between them they adjudged a score would have occurred and the visitors were awarded a penalty try.
Little happened during Hogg’s absence, but when he returned the Chiefs were back on the front foot and they thought they had grabbed a third try just before the break when Joe Simmonds appeared to waltz his way over. Again, the officials conferred about the legality of the move and again the decision went against the home side, Ian Whitten adjudged to have blocked a defender in the build-up.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 LA ROCHELLE 14
Although deadlocked at the turn, it had hardly been the free-flowing fare of recent weeks from the Chiefs. Baxter was clearly less than impressed with some of his side’s actions and used the 15-minute respite to drill home a few home truths.
Whatever was said, it had the desired effect as the Chiefs were much improved on the resumption. Cowan-Dickie - who was at the heart of all of Exeter’s good work - led the charge, closely followed by decent carries from Jack Vermeulen and Ewers. Between them, they had punched significant holes into the La Rochelle defence.
The visitors did their best to quell the mounting home tide, but when they leaked a penalty just five metres out, again the Chiefs tapped and went, this time working the opening for No.8 Sam Simmonds to claim his first of the afternoon, which younger brother Joe duly converted.
With the bonus point now in sight, the Chiefs looked to go for the ever-exposing La Rochelle jugular. Hogg could have got the fourth try, but for a loose pass from Joe Simmonds wide on the left. However, the wait for the all-important score was not long in coming.
Having gained scrum dominance, including shunting La Rochelle off their own put-in, the hosts used the resultant set-piece to propel their rivals back at a rate of knots, allowing Simmonds the simplest of tasks to score once again.
Bonus point in the bag, it was a question of how many more the Chiefs were going to win by. A loose line-out picked up by Cowan-Dickie signalled the start of a counter-attack that released replacement Devoto. He tore down field before drawing in the cover and shipping the ball inside to Townsend, who won’t get an easier score all season. Simmonds again obliged with the necessary extras.
Baxter took the opportunity to run his bench in the final quarter, which should have added more bounty. Hogg will feel have aggrieved especially with team-mates Townsend and Olly Woodburn both choosing the wrong options when the Scotsman was perfectly placed to score.
Jonny Hill, another who enjoyed an immense game on his return to first-team duties, also threatened twice, but he was denied by some stout, last-gasp defending, as was replacement Matt Kvesic, who came within a whisker of scoring in the latter stages.
For the Chiefs, it was a job well done. They can now put Europe on the back burner until later in the season and instead focus their minds to next week’s visit of Sale Sharks in the Premiership. After which, the games will continue to flow in what is fast becoming a season of real promise for the ‘Men of Devon’.
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, I Whitten (O Devoto 53), S Hill, O Woodburn; J Simmonds (G Steenson 69), J Maunder (S Townsend 58); A Hepburn (B Moon 58), L Cowan-Dickie (E Taione 65), H Williams (E Pieretto 65); D Dennis (capt), J Hill; D Ewers (J Kirsten 68), J Vermeulen, S Simmonds (M Kvesic 65).
Tries - Cowan-Dickie, Ewers, S Simmonds (2), Townsend; Conversions - J Simmonds (4)
Yellow Card: Hogg
La Rochelle: V Rattez (B James 68); K Murimurivalu, G Doumayrou (E Roudil 48), P Aguillon, A Retiere; I West, T Berjon (A Bales 69); D Priso (L Aouf 54), P Bourgarit (F Bosch 54), U Antonio (S Puafisi h/t); R Sazy (capt, T Levault 6), R Leroux; L Timani (W Liebenberg 24), Z Kieft, G Aldritt.
Tries - Murimurivalu, Penalty Try; Conversion - West
Referee: F Murphy