Chiefs 41 Montpellier 10
Exeter Chiefs 41
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
If there are ever thoughts of another tunnel being dug beneath the English Channel, then the Exeter Chiefs pack could well put in a tender for the role.
Rob Baxter's juggernaut set of forwards have become past masters in the art of digging deep to extract rich rewards.
Against visiting Montpellier, the English champions were ruthless in their execution of duty, delivering a six-try victory that kept alive their hopes of qualification in this season's European Champions Cup.
Having led just 7-0 at the break thanks to a converted try from Dave Ewers, Devon's finest were majestic in the second period adding further scores from Sam Simmonds, Olly Woodburn (2), Nic White and Don Armand.
Skipper Gareth Steenson and young replacement Joe Simmonds slotted the remainder of the home side's points, while all Montpellier could muster in terms of a response was a late try from Nemani Nadolo, plus five points from the boot of All Blacks fly-half Aaron Cruden.
Returning to European action knowing nothing less than victory would be enough for them to stand any chance of advancing in the competition, Baxter’s side was boosted for the visit of the Frenchmen by the return of several frontline stars.
Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams all came into the front-row, Jonny Hill was added at lock, while Armand was another notable addition to the back-row. Behind them, international duo Henry Slade and Lachie Turner was also on from the outset having missed the previous week’s defeat to Newcastle Falcons in the league.
Montpellier, having leapfrogged the Chiefs to second in Pool 3 following their back-to-back victories over Glasgow Warriors last month, were fully loaded for only their second-ever visit to Sandy Park.
Experienced No.8 Louis Picamoles led them into battle, but he was joined in the ranks by a list of world rugby galaticos, including the likes of Cruden, Francois Steyn, Bismarck Du Plessis and the imposing Nadolo, himself no stranger to the Devon turf having spent a brief spell with the Chiefs back in 2011.
With a stiff breeze at their backs in the first period, Montpellier looked to make the most of the conditions during the early stages. The Chiefs, however, were having none of it and countered their attacking threat with a powerful ‘Pink Wall’ of defence that forced their rivals into a series of handling errors.
Then, when the Chiefs did have possession of their own, they countered down field with a series of attacking waves, two of which threatened briefly, but ultimately came to nothing as a combination of handling errors and a stiff rearguard action from Vern Cotter’s side held them at bay.
As defences dominated the opening quarter, Montpellier threatened once more when Picamoles broke off a maul to attack down the left flank, but as he closed in on the try-line, a clutch of home defenders were on hand to haul him into touch and end the raid.
At the other end, the lively Turner and winger Olly Woodburn both made decent inroads before the Chiefs fashioned their first real opening of note. Sam Simmonds picked off the base of a scrum, it went back inside through the forwards - notably Ewers and Cowan Dickie - the latter of whom knocked on just inches from dotting down.
Undeterred, the hosts continued to pile forward and on 27 minutes they broke the game’s deadlock when Ewers showed his team-mate how it should be done, using his hulking frame to drive two Montpellier defenders back over their own line for the score, which Steenson duly converted.
Montpellier looked to counter almost immediately with an attack of their own deep inside the Chiefs 22, but a crucial turnover from Armand not only stopped them in their tracks but, more crucially, set his side back on the front foot.
Pinning the Frenchmen back with a lengthy clearance, winger Gabriel N’Gandebe looked to clear his own lines, only for his punt to be charged down by the onrushing Turner. Although the Aussie international was quickest to react to the loose ball and touchdown, the eagle-eyed officials had spotted his foot had hit the line and the score was chalked off, much to the disappointment of many inside the stadium.
The Chiefs were on top and they underlined their advantage to remain in front at the turn by producing another strong defensive set right on the stroke of half time when they defended off a lengthy Cruden penalty to the corner a strong Montpellier onslaught.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 7 MONTPELLIER 0
Now with conditions in their favour, the Chiefs looked to build on their slender advantage in the early exchanges of the half. Montpellier, however, were standing firm and having soaked up the initial pressure, they themselves ventured into enemy territory for the first time.
Although they huffed and puffed in attack, Baxter's side were unwilling to give an inch. When they did, albeit for playing the ball on the floor, it allowed Cruden to step foward and slot a simple penalty to reduce the arrears.
It would, however, be a rare bright spot in a half which belonged solely to the Chiefs. Quickly back on the offensive, it was not long before the vociferous home fans were given further reason to cheer.
A slick attack from the Exeter back division released centre Sam Hill at a rate of knots, although he was felled in full flight, the chasing cavalry were not too far behind as first Cowan-Dickie, then Sam Simmonds took charge, the latter twisting and turning to squeeze his way over for the converted score.
Minutes later and the Chiefs were at it again, this time fashioning an opening through the industrious White, who linked well with Alec Hepburn and then Armand to get within sniffing distance of the white line.
Montpellier somehow held off the threat, but from the resulant scrum, White picked from the base of a scrum, fed Steenson, whose looping pass out to the left found Woodburn. Still with plenty to do, the Exeter flyer merely took to the air, diving towards the left corner under a barrage of heavy pressure.
Welsh referee Nigel Owens merely looked at his colleague for approval, the thumb went up, the Tribe went wild.
There was to be no let-up from the Chiefs who, with the bonus point now in their sight, looked to go after the expose Montpellier jugular. Replacement Matt Kvesic saw a potential score chalked off by the TMO for being held up, but Neil Hennessey could not deny Woodburn from claiming his second, the Welsh TV official adjudging no problem when the Exeter winger again produced a sublime finish in the same corner as earlier.
Like a punched-drunk boxer, Montpellier were rocking on their feet. However, when one of their former stars took his turn for a pop shot, they were well and truly floored when White sniped over in the corner after strong carries from both Hepburn and Kvesic in the build-up.
Just to make sure the job was truly done and dusted, Armand added his name to the scoring list, driving over with just six minutes remaining to the put the coupe de grace on Exeter's stunning display.
To their credit, Montpellier - no doubt already turning their attentions to next weekend's home assignment against pool leaders Leinster - rallied for one last hurrah. Throwing caution to the wind, they drove into the Exeter 22, the ball went out to Jesse Mogg, whose clever cross-field kick was plucked from the night sky by Nadolo, who touched down.
It was a mere consolation, added to by Cruden's clever touchline conversion. Instead, it was the Chiefs who moved back into second spot in the pool, knowing now a similar outcome in Glasgow a week today could well ensure Baxter's charge have a fighting chance of a place in the last eight of Europe's top club competition.
Exeter Chiefs: L Turner; I Whitten, H Slade, S Hill, O Woodburn; G Steenson (capt, J Simmonds 69), N White (W Chudley 69), B Moon (A Hepburn 54), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 54-69), H Williams (T Francis 54); M Lees, J Hill; D Ewers (M Kvesic 58), D Armand, S Simmonds (T Salmon 69). Replacement (not used): P Dollman.
Tries - Ewers, S Simmonds, Woodburn (2), White, Armand; Conversions - Steenson (3), J Simmonds; Penalty - J Simmonds
Montpellier: H Immelman; G N’Gandebe, F Steyn, J Serfontein (J Tomane 60), N Nadolo; A Cruden, G Aprasidze (J Mogg 69); M Nariashvili (G Fichten 45), B Du Plessis (R Ruffenach 69), J Jonker (M Haouas h/t); N Van Rensburg, K Mikautadze (J Delannoy 62); J Bardy (K Galletier 18-24), Y Camara (K Galletier 57), L Picamoles (capt). Replacement (not used): B Fall.
Try - Nadolo; Conversion - Cruden; Penalty - Cruden
Referee: N Owens (WRU)