Chiefs 42 Montpellier 6
Exeter Chiefs 42
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter’s latest European exploits are up and running thanks to their very own ‘Flying Scotsman’ as they steamed past French visitors Montpellier in this Heineken Champions Cup opener.
Lock Jonny Gray claimed his first-ever try hat-trick as the former champions ran in six tries in a performance that augurs well for the upcoming months.
Compatriot Stuart Hogg helped set the Chiefs on their victory march, before Gray took centre stage with his second half try-scoring exploits. Fellow forwards Sam Simmonds and Don Armand also got in on the act with Joe Simmonds plundering conversions to all six scores to cap a fine night at the office for Rob Baxter’s side.
In reply, Montpellier offered very little after a sprightly first quarter in which they led 6-0 thanks to two penalties from playmaker Louis Forsans.
After back-to-back victories against Bath and Saracens in the Gallagher, Baxter saw little reason to tinker too much to his starting line-up for the visit of the Frenchmen.
The sole change in personnel saw Scottish international Sam Skinner recalled to the pack at open-side with Don Armand dropping to the bench at the expense of Richard Capstick.
Montpellier, meanwhile, arrived in Devon minus a number of their frontline stars, including South African World Cup winner Hendre Pollard, who will be gracing the Premiership next season in the colours of Leicester Tigers.
It was, however, still a powerful array of talent who quickly settled into the action on a mild, yet greasy evening at Sandy Park.
Kicking towards the North Terrace first up, it took Philippe Saint-Andre’s men just three minutes to open their account, fly-half Forsans slotting a penalty from midway inside the Chiefs half after centre Henry Slade had been pulled up for holding on in the tackle.
Just the start they had craved, things would get even better for the visitors just minutes later as Forsans doubled his tally for the night, slotting another decent kick as the Chiefs again fell foul of Welsh referee Craig Evans at the breakdown.
Struggling to find any real rhythm during a tight first quarter, the Chiefs finally sprung into life on 24 minutes when, using their powerful pack to punch through the stubborn white wall in front of them, they finally got on the front foot.
With a raucous crowd saluting every inch gleaned by the forward, the Chiefs edged themselves to within sniffing distance of the line, before the ball was flung out wide through the hands of Jack Maunder and Joe Simmonds, whose looping pass found Hogg in space.
Still with plenty to do, the Scottish star – named in World Rugby’s Team of the Year this week – cut in off his left foot before dancing his way under the posts for the opening try, which was converted by Joe Simmonds.
Up and running at last, it was just the tonic the Chiefs needed to add a bit of fizz to their game which, until that point, had been a mixed bag of tricks.
As half time approached, Slade latched onto possession to cut through the heart of the Montpellier defence, but again the cavalry was slow to reach him and the visitors were able to clear the danger.
Montpellier momentarily threatened at the other end in the dying embers, but the Chiefs were able to stand firm and hold the lead at the turn.
HALF TIME: EXETER CHIEFS 7 MONTPELLIER 6
After a tough first half at scrum time, it came as little surprise that the Chiefs opted to change tight-head Josh Iosefa-Scott during the interval.
Into the fold came Sam Nixon, whose first meaningful action was to help the Chiefs claim their second try inside a minute of the restart.
Great work from Jack Nowell at the kick-off helped garner earlier possession for the hosts, before the ball was again worked through the forwards, via the frames of Dave Ewers and Sam Simmonds, before the ball was worked around the corner to Gray, who was able to drive and then stretch for the line. Joe Simmonds slotted the extras to ensure a maximum haul.
Forsans had the chance to cut the deficit almost immediately with a third penalty chance, but this time the normal lethal marksmen was short on the kick, his effort dropping just below the left post.
It mattered not for the Chiefs, who were slowly beginning to crank through the gears. Kick pressure from the hosts saw Aprasidze slice a clearance less than six metres from his own try-line. Now, poised with the line-out, the Exeter eight combined as one to create the platform from which Gray, aided by a sizeable shove from Ewers, for his second of the night.
It was dreamy stuff for the Scotsman, but his night wasn’t finish there as he claimed his hat-trick score just before the hour mark when he was propelled over the line by two of his team-mates.
Initially the officials were unsure to the validity of the score, but following numerous checks, the wait was worth it as Evans signalled for the bonus point score, again converted from the right touchline by Simmonds’ trusty right boot.
With the contest effectively over there and then, both sides took the opportunity to empty their benches for the final quarter.
It was, however, the Chiefs who were continuing to dominate and they thought they had nabbed a fifth score when Nowell’s kick in behind sparked a foot race towards the line. Montpellier did well to cover the initial threat, but the hosts were there in numbers to set up Ian Whitten for the score.
Sadly, the onrushing Hogg was adjudged to have knocked on before slipping the pass to the Irishman and the score was chalked off on review.
The natives may not have been happy, but it mattered not as the Chiefs didn’t have to wait long as the prolific Sam Simmonds got his regulation score, trundling over after yet more impressive build-up play from Baxter’s side. Young brother Joe added the conversion to maintain his unblemished record for the night.
The Chiefs were far from finished and with the game all but up, they put the coupe de grace on proceedings when Armand was able to find his way over from close range. Simmonds converted for a sixth time, ensuring it was a happy finale for Baxter’s side in their final home outing of 2020.
Chiefs: S Hogg (H Skinner 68); J Nowell, H Slade (T Hendrickson 61), I Whitten, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Maunder 61); A Hepburn (J Kenny 64), L Cowan-Dickie (capt, J Yeandle 61), J Iosefa-Scott (S Nixon h/t); J Gray, J Hill (D Armand 71); D Ewers (J Kirsten 59), S Skinner, S Simmonds.
Tries – Hogg, Gray (3), S Simmonds, Armand; Conversions – J Simmonds (6)
Montpellier: J Tisseron (A Eymeri 62); J Vici, Y Reilhac, T Darmon, G N’Gandebe, L Forsans (P Lucas 68), G Aprasidze; E Fourletta (R Rodgers 51), B Paenga-Amosa (G Guirado 52), H Thomas (M Hamadache 62); M Capelli (T Duguid 57), B Chalreau; N Janse Van Rensburg, J Maurouard (M Dakuwaqa 59), K Galletier (capt, Z Mercer 72).
Penalties – Forsans (2)
Yellow Card: Vici
Referee: C Evans