Chiefs 47 Lyon 25
Exeter Chiefs 47
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
The French Revolution looked to be in full flow in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup with La Rochelle, Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse all advancing into the last eight of the competition.
However, Lyon could not add their name to the star-studded line-up for the quarter-finals as defending champions Exeter Chiefs overcame a stuttering start before powering past Pierre Mignoni’s men.
Returning England forward Jonny Hill led the way for the Chiefs, scoring two of their six tries on the day. The lumbering lock crossed twice in the opening half to go alongside additional scores from Tom O’Flaherty, Dave Ewers and Olly Woodburn.
A second half penalty try underlined the home side’s dominance up front in a victory which sets-up a mouth-watering showdown with four-time European kings, Leinster, next weekend at Sandy Park.
Whilst cut-throat in attack, the Chiefs will certainly need to address other areas of their game before the visit of the Irishmen. In the opening ten minutes of this clash, they found themselves two converted scores down.
Full-back Toby Arnold made the most of some sloppy home defending to create the opening score for scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud on six minutes, before the visitors doubled their advantage just moments later. Winger Xavier Mignot diving over in the right-hand corner after the Chiefs had again been picked open with relative ease by their rivals.
It was a dream start for Lyon, who had come into this European encounter on the back of a thumping 56-14 victory over RC Toulon last time out.
Somewhat shell-shocked, Rob Baxter’s side needed to find a response of sorts, fast. With watching England head coach Eddie Jones sat alone in the West Grandstand, it didn’t take long for one of his recent Six Nations squad to prove his worth.
Having won a penalty, which skipper Joe Simmonds drilled into the left corner, Hill won the resultant line-out to create the platform from which the Chiefs could attack. Centre Devoto, then Ewers, both made decent dents in the Lyon rearguard, before Hill picked up and drove powerfully over from close range for Exeter’s opening try.
But no sooner had they given themselves a shot back into the contest, the Chiefs handed the initiative straight back to Lyon as a mistake at the restart allowed fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski, who had converted their two earlier tries, to plunder a 35-metre penalty with relative ease.
Things were clearly not going to plan for the holders during a disappointing opening quarter where, let’s be honest, they were trying to force their game too much at crucial times.
However, as their pack started to find their feet, gaining an edge at scrum time in particular, so the Chiefs started to may hay in terms of both territory and possession.
Winger O’Flaherty was held up over the line as he juggled a pass from Luke Cowan-Dickie, before Lyon lost prop Vivien Devisme to a yellow card for deliberately collapsing an Exeter driving maul just inches from his own try-line.
Referee Ben Whitehouse could easily have given a penalty try for his indiscretion, but with the man advantage it took the Chiefs literally the next facet of play to make them pay.
Hill was again the beneficiary, burrowing over the whitewash after the hulking frame of Ewers had caused no end of damage to the Lyon defensive line with another trademark carry.
With Devisme confined to a watching brief from the sidelines, the French forward could only watch on as the Chiefs claimed the lead for the first time on 29 minutes.
Again working the ball off the top of a line-out, home half-backs Jack Maunder and Joe Simmonds combined superbly to release Woodburn, who had snuck in off the right flank to pick a lovely route through the heart of the Lyon midfield. As the winger sliced through the line like a knife through butter, he drew in the cover before feeding fellow flyer O’Flaherty for the score, beautifully converted from the left touchline by the boot of Joe Simmonds.
Once more, Lyon would not go quietly, capitalising on another piece of sloppy play from the Chiefs to regain the lead with a second Wisniewski penalty after Jonny Gray had been pulled up for infringing on the floor.
It was end-to-end stuff from the two sides, who were literally trading blows like prized heavyweights in the prime of their careers.
But, with a minute of the half remaining, the Chiefs struck for a fourth try. Having won a scrum penalty just five metres from the Lyon line, they opted to take the quick tap penalty, using the forwards to bludgeon their way to within sniffing distance of the line, before it was worked at speed to Devoto, who was able to drive under the posts for the converted score.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 26 LYON 20
It had been a strong conclusion to the end of the first half from the Chiefs, but any thoughts they had that things would let off on the resumption were soon spelt out in detail by Mignoni’s side who, just as they had done earlier in the game, flew out of the traps at a rate of knots.
Centre Pierre-Louis Barassi sounded their battle cry, producing a bulldozing run that took a combination of Woodburn and full-back Stuart Hogg to halt him, before a brilliant turnover from Cowan-Dickie on the floor allowed the Chiefs to alleviate the danger just three minutes into the second period.
Lyon continued to pile forward in numbers, not afraid to give it a go from seemingly anywhere on the pitch, and the Chiefs had to dig deep into their reserves. However, this they did, and it proved pivotal as slowly they wrestled the game back into their favour.
Scrum time continued to be a problem area for the visitors and when replacement Xavier Chiocci became their second prop to see yellow for dropping the set-piece, so the Chiefs sensed they could start to go for the ever-exposing Lyon jugular.
Initially, the visitors did well to repel the raids of the Chiefs, before the hosts worked the opening for the relentless Ewers to crash over from close range. It was ruthless efficiency from last season’s double champions in the red zone.
Not content to leave it there, Baxter’s side continued to press forward against the tiring French outfit. Having pressured their rivals into conceding a five-metre scrum, the fresh muscle of Messrs Moon, Yeandle and Francis up front helped to shove the Lyon eight in a sprawled mass on the floor.
Referee Whitehouse had no option but to award the penalty try - an outcome which by then had already effectively sealed Exeter’s path into the next stages of the competition.
Champion-winning sides, though, don’t tend to know when they are done and as the game entered into the dying embers, it was left to Woodburn to put the coupe de grace on proceedings, touching down when he latched onto a clever grubber kick in behind from Stu Townsend.
With Jacques Vermeulen taken off as a precaution late on, then compatriot Jannes Kirsten sin-binned for a trip, Lyon made the most of the numbers game to work the ball from one side of the field to the other, allowing flanker Dylan Cretin to cross with the very last play of the game.
For the Chiefs it mattered not, already they were looking to the future, and what promises to be an epic European encounter against Leinster.
Chiefs: S Hogg; O Woodburn, H Slade, O Devoto (I Whitten 65), T O’Flaherty (I Whitten 43-53); J Simmonds (capt, H Skinner 67), J Maunder (S Townsend 56); A Hepburn (B Moon 48), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 52), H Williams(T Francis 48); J Gray (S Skinner 53), J Hill; D Ewers, J Vermeulen, S Simmonds (J Kirsten 62).
Tries - Hill (2), O’Flaherty, Devoto, Ewers, Penalty Try, Woodburn; Conversion - J Simmonds (4), H Skinner
Yellow Card: Kirsten
Lyon: T Arnold (C Laporte 62); X Mignot, P-L Barassi, C Ngatai (capt, T Regard 68), N Nakaitaci; J Wisniewski (J-M Doussain 63), B Couilloud; V Devisme (X Chiocci 45), J Maurouard (M Ivaldi 45), F Gomez Kodela (J Taufete’e 45); F Lambey (M Guillard 6), I Rodda; D Cretin, C Fainga'a, P Sobela (X Chiocci 36-37, V Devisme 62-67, A Tulou 68).
Tries - Couilloud, Mignot, Cretin; Conversions - Wisniewski (2); Penalties - Wisniewski (2)
Yellow Card: Devisme, Chiocci
Referee: B Whitehouse (WRU)