Even with Europe conquered, Exeter remain hungry for more
Club’s thoughts turn immediately to Premiership final against Wasps
Joe Simmonds of Exeter Chiefs celebrates as Nigel Owens blows for full time after the Heineken Champions Cup Final against Racing 92 at Ashton Gate in Bristol. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images.
Ask any Devon farmer and they will tell you the cream rises to the top eventually. As Joe Simmonds and Jack Yeandle, the pride of Teignmouth and Crediton respectively, jointly hoisted the Champions Cup into the Bristol sky after Exeter’s 31-27 victory over Racing 92, it was also further proof, if it were required, that good guys do not necessarily finish second and that honesty, integrity and camaraderie can still win out in modern professional sport.
Amid all the cascading accolades – English clubs have now lifted four of the last five Champions Cups while Bristol’s Challenge Cup success ensured a Premiership clean sweep this year – it was also an achievement to warm the hearts of small-town folk nationwide. There have been some remarkable winners of this coveted tournament in the quarter of a century since its inception but, in virtually every respect, Exeter are hard to beat.
There could also be further West Country glory to come, with the Chiefs already refocusing on Saturday’s domestic final against – as things currently stand – Wasps. Rob Baxter has given his players a few extra hours off on Monday morning before the proper business of trophy hunting resumes but anyone wondering if Exeter might now be slightly ambivalent about the Premiership is overlooking the club’s mounting appetite.
In the last 15 years only Toulon have matched Exeter’s feat of mastering Europe without having previously made it beyond the quarter-final stage, while Exeter’s average haul of 4.2 tries per game is the highest of any previous winner. When they can hoist trophies having played, in some respects, below their best, it is not a bad platform from which to try to secure a double. As a few players said to Baxter afterwards: “Imagine if we had played well, Rob?”
If there is a question mark it is surely an emotional one. What a truly bizarre feeling it must be to achieve your heart’s desire and – with the exception of the Simmonds brothers – not have a single member of your close family with whom to share it.
“That’s why there were a lot of emotional people on the pitch, myself included,” Baxter acknowledged. “Five or six guys were in tears because they wanted to look over and hug their wife and kids. That’s a big part of it.”
Nor was it practicable, for obvious reasons, to spend the night on the tiles back in Devon once their own brand victory song – “The Exeter boys are happy, the Exeter boys are we . . .” – had been collectively belted out in the Ashton Gate dressing room. The sad absence of spectators also made it harder for the full magnitude of victory to sink in, which could just strengthen the Chiefs’ desire to emulate Saracens, Wasps and Leicester by securing a trophy double.
There is also the small matter of three losing Premiership finals in four years; rinsing away the bad memories of their Saracens defeats remains a major motivation and will regenerate a few aching bodies.
Henry Slade, scorer of the Chiefs’ fourth try after Jack Nowell had intercepted Finn Russell’s attempted floated pass, already feels the outcome has helped to ease the intense disappointment he endured when his country lost in last year’s World Cup final.
“The World Cup final was an unbelievable experience but a massive disappointment,” said the England centre. “This is the next best thing. I remember being a kid watching this tournament and wanting to be in it one day. To have the chance to go and win it is such a special feeling.”
Gracious in defeat
It is also Slade’s firm belief that the sting of defeat has been crucial to Exeter’s remarkable journey, which he thinks still has a fair amount of mileage in it. “I hope so. We’ve had our success in finals but we’ve also been through the mill a bit. As a squad we’re definitely using those learnings really well. We’re at a real good age across the squad and we feel really confident whenever we take the field. Hopefully we can push on from here.”
Racing, now beaten in three European finals, were admirably gracious in defeat but will for ever regret not capitalising on a 19-phase period of pressure against a Chiefs defensive wall reduced to 14 men for the final nine minutes when the replacement prop Tomas Francis was sent to the sin-bin for one of those “deliberate” knock-ons that often looks like an involuntary reflex action.
Among Exeter’s unsung heroes should definitely be included Sam Skinner and Jannes Kirsten, who somehow managed to repel a charging Antonie Claassen close to the line before Sam Hidalgo Clyne effected the key turnover that decisively swung the outcome.
As well as the relentless Sam Simmonds – named the European player of the season – Jonny Hill, the tough-tackling frontrowers Harry Williams and Alec Hepburn, and the organisational skills and tactical judgment of the scrumhalf Jack Maunder also deserve a quiet mention. In recent weeks the 23-year-old Maunder has been pitted against a succession of quality international scrumhalves, from Faf de Klerk to Antoine Dupont and Ben Youngs, and Exeter have won every time. Wasps may be in good form but, even with Europe now conquered, the Chiefs remain hungry for more.