La Rochelle 12 Chiefs 31
La Rochelle 12
Exeter Chiefs 31
Mark Stevens at Stade Marcel Deflandre
In Europe, Exeter Chiefs have often flattered to deceive.
For some unknown reason, Rob Baxter’s side haven’t quite been able to replicate their dominant domestic form to that of the Heineken Champions Cup.
It’s a problem which the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby has been at pains to address for some time. However, ahead of their latest campaign, Exeter’s commander-in-chief believes this season could finally be the year that his side finally come to the party.
Well, if this Round One opener is anything to go by, Baxter could well be right as the Chiefs started with a bang against hosts La Rochelle. Not only did they kick-off with a victory, but they bagged themselves all five points with a dominant display.
Tries from Dave Dennis, Tom O’Flaherty, Henry Slade and Sam Simmonds were the highlights, while Joe Simmonds maintained his impressive form with the boot by kicking a perfect five from five to finish with 11 points.
La Rochelle countered with second half tries from Geoffrey Doumayrou and Kini Murimurivalu, but that was scant reward on a day when they were distinctly second best.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter had urged his team to ‘go for it’ and play without fear as they attempted to give their latest European campaign the perfect start.
Back at the Stade Marcel Deflandre for the first time since December 2014, when they defeated their French hosts 36-10 in the European Challenge Cup, Baxter stuck with the large nucleus of those who started the previous week’s defeat at home to Bristol Bears.
In the pack, though, there were changes with Aussie international Dennis and Dave Ewers recalled in place of Jannes Kirsten and Matt Kvesic, while behind Ian Whitten - on his 200th appearance for the Devon club - came in to the centre in place of Sam Hill.
Irishman Whitten was one of four survivors in the visiting ranks who remained from their last visit. The others were Ewers, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Gareth Steenson.
La Rochelle, meanwhile, made four changes to their side from that which were well beaten 45-17 at Lyon. On home turf, however, Jono Gibbs’ side are a formidable force, having lost only three times in the calendar year.
Roared on by a capacity crowd - their 51st in a row - the early exchanges were largely restricted to a centre-field arm wrestle as both sides wrestled for the initial upper hand.
It was, however, the Chiefs who were quickest into their attacking stride and on nine minutes they broke the game’s deadlock. England prop Harry Williams instigated the initial raid with a charging run through the heart of the home midfield, after which his fellow forwards joined the party, using their tried-and-trusted, pick-and-go game, to fashion the opening for Dennis to burrow over by the right-hand post.
Fly-half Joe Simmonds slotted the extras to maintain his impressive record from the kicking tee this term - and give the Chiefs the dream start to this contest.
As expected, La Rochelle looked to hit back almost immediately, trying a variety of ways to get themselves up and running. The Chiefs, though, were standing firm in defence, producing a hard-hitting and highly effective lilac wall of bodies.
And even when the French club did finally make inroads, a potential try for winger Vincent Rattez was chalked off by the TV match official for an earlier forward pass. It was a let-off not only for the Chiefs, but also Williams who had given away the penalty from which the home side went quick.
La Rochelle continued to pile forward in numbers as the half ticked by, but still the Chiefs manfully stood in their path. And having eventually soaked up the pressure, it was the visitors who made their way down the other end with a clever counter-attack.
Pinning their hosts back deep inside their own 22, a mistake from Mathieu Tanguy - who threw a loose pass behind his own dead ball line - gifted the Chiefs an attacking scrum five metres out. Although that set-piece yielded little reward, the ensuing play saw Baxter’s side glean a penalty advantage.
Rather than halt their charge, the Chiefs threw caution to the wind, firing the ball out wide through Nic White to Joe Simmonds, whose looping pass to the right found O’Flaherty. Still with plenty to do, the winger - who spent a year studying French in Montpellier as a student - cut in from the right touchline, before showing great strength to power over in the corner for the score, superbly converted by Simmonds.
It was terrific stuff from the Chiefs, who were able to see out the remainder of the half with relative ease, giving them the perfect launchpad from which to work in the second period.
HALF TIME LA ROCHELLE 0 EXETER CHIEFS 14
Baxter will no doubt have used the interval to remind his side of the importance of backing up their first half work, particularly given what had happened against Bristol the previous week, where the Chiefs were guilty of letting a 17-point lead slip.
No doubt La Rochelle will have viewed that particular contest this week and when they scored just five minutes into the half, it gave the partisan home faithful reason to raise the decibels a notch or two.
Centre Doumayrou was the try-scorer, finishing off a slick handling move down the left which had involved fellow backs Levani Botia and Arthur Retiere, whose switch pass back inside from the right flank allowed his team-mate to dot down.
Little did they know, but this would be a rare moment of joy for the hosts in a half in which the Chiefs slowly, but surely, began to squeeze their rivals into submission.
With La Rochelle continuing to press forward in attack, it was a mistake from full-back Jeremy Sinzelle that gift-wrapped a third try for the Chiefs. Looking to get his side moving on the outside, Slade not only read the Frenchman’s intentions, but he masterfully grasped his floated pass on halfway, before racing in unopposed for the interception score.
Joe Simmonds, as he has done all season, made no mistake with the conversion, before adding the additional two points to Exeter’s bonus point score, which came courtesy of older sibling, Sam.
The England international was on hand to drive his way over from eight metres out, after the Chiefs had again worked a clever opening off a penalty advantage.
It was no more than the Chiefs deserved for their efforts, but Baxter’s side weren’t finished there. Fresh muscle from the bench helped them keep up their relentless approach - a point very much underlined when they won a scrum penalty bang in front of the home posts.
Bonus point secured, there was no need to try for greater reward, so Simmonds stepped forward to slot the resultant penalty and put the Chiefs 26 points clear.
To their credit, La Rochelle refused to throw in the towel and with the very last play of the game they were rewarded with a converted try for replacement Murimurivalu. Sadly, it was all a little late for the hosts and their supporters, who were now having to listen to the vocal travelling Tribe belting out the ‘Tomahawk Chop’.
A delighted Baxter rightfully praised his side at the final whistle, but he also issued a timely warning that failure to follow up this display against Glasgow Warriors next week would quickly take the shine off this polished performance.
La Rochelle: J Sinzelle; V Rattez, G Doumayrou, L Botia (K Murimurivalu 65), A Retiere; I West (B James 65), A Bales (M Andreu 58); D Priso (R Wardi 66), P Bourgarit (F Bosch 66), A Joly (S Puafisi 56); R Sazy (L Timani 64), M Tanguy; G Alldritt, W Liebenberg (K Gourdon 58), V Vito (capt).
Tries - Doumayrou, Murimurivalu; Conversion - James
Chiefs: S Hogg (G Steenson 66), T O'Flaherty, H Slade, I Whitten, A Cuthbert (J Nowell 63; J Simmonds, N White (J Maunder); A Hepburn (B Moon 31-40, 50), J Yeandle (capt, L Cowan-Dickie 63), H Williams (M Street); D Dennis (J Kirsten 63), J Hill; D Ewers, J Vermeulen, S Simmonds (D Armand 69).
Tries - Dennis, O’Flaherty, Slade, S Simmonds; Conversions - J Simmonds (4); Penalty - J Simmonds
Referee: M Adamson