Exeter takes first European triumph in Champions Cup thriller


As the garlands filled the sky and flamethrowers lit the night sky, it was a fitting end to Exeter’s fairytale that two local boys raised the trophy.

Rob Baxter watched with glassy eyes as Jack Yeandle and Joe Simmonds lifted the Champions Cup above their heads.

Nearly a decade after winning promotion to the second division of English rugby, Exeter completed their long and unpredictable journey from the far corners of Devon to the top of Europe.

Exeter can now complete a national and European double after winning the Champions Cup

The Chiefs took on France’s Racing 92 at Ashton Gate in the Champions Cup final

The Premiership team first offered to be crowned the champions of Europe

This could be the start of a new era of dominance and, given the magnitude of their achievements, it is certainly a matter of time before a statue of Baxter is erected outside Sandy Park.

Ever since he changed the numbers on the club’s scoreboard as a kid, Baxter’s name has been synonymous with their rise in the ranks – and he’s now on his way to leading his squad to a famous doppelganger.

Half an hour after the final whistle, Jack Nowell was still sitting in the middle of the field, embracing the moment. Like his teammates, the winger fought for every inch while the 14-man Chiefs held on for the smallest of wins.

“It’s an incredible story for these guys and an incredible story for the club,” said Baxter. ‘It will be a game that I will remember for a long time. Those last 10 minutes seemed to go on forever, but we saw it. It looks like it was meant to be.

Ollie Devoto was ecstatic after an exciting second half in which Racing fought back fiercely

Racing had built up in a bio-safe bubble in Corsica after several positive Covid-19 tests

The guys sacrificed a lot to get through this stage and haven’t had any friends and support to see them in the biggest game of their lives. A lot of things that have happened today have nice symmetry.

Some are crying, delighted – some can barely speak and some are over the moon. That’s what rugby is about and we have the right emotions. ‘

The Chiefs have never forgotten their roots. Of their 31 points, 26 were scored by academy products.

They perfected their system through years of trial and error and the game played out like a match between humans and machines. It was the footless and imaginative Parisians against Exeter’s system of bone-crushing gears.

The image before kick-off summarized the contrasts in approach. While Exeter underwent coordinated team draws before kick-off, Finn Russell sat across the field juggling three rugby balls.

Luke Cowan-Dickie (right) scores as the Chiefs claim an early lead against their exhausted rivals

Referee Nigel Owens (fourth from right) awards Exeter a second try, scored by Sam Simmonds

Racing practiced no-look passes and emerged for kickoff with pink bow ties. But the Chiefs’ dagger was sharper than any Parisian swagger.

There were even early times when Racing played like they’d just stumbled out of a dinner.

Their scrum half, Teddy iribaren, played with fire in the early exchanges. He missed the touch with an early penalty and tried to throw himself a quick lineout a few minutes later.

Nowell snapped the No. 9 and forced a penalty. Exeter kicked to the corner and the gears began to spin. Jonny Gray claimed an offensive lineout and, inch by inch, they drove forward for Luke Cowan Dickie to score the opening shot.

Simon Zebo and Juan Imhoff responded in a poignant final as Racing threatened to turn the tide

A group of traveling French reserves attempted to start their team with a screeching cacophony of air horns, but the squeezing continued.

Racing played with fire in their own 22 and Exeter showed up with a giant bucket of water. Jonny Hill’s line speed forced Russell to fumble the ball in his in-goal and Exeter built up the pressure from the scrum. Sam Simmonds added the second of his squad before the end of the first quarter.

For 20 minutes, Exeter managed to captivate Russell’s attacking instincts. Stuart Hogg shadowed the fly-haf behind the defensive line to leave no room for his dangerous chipkicks, while defenders ‘Get Russell!’ to shorten his time on the ball.

In an attempt to undo Russell’s link with Virimi Vakatawa, Exeter left the space wide open and Russell threw an inch-perfect misspass to Simon Zebo, who found room to score on the right wing.

Gareth Steenson enjoys a moment of glory with the trophy after Exeter’s dramatic overall victory

Eddy Ben Arous and George Henri Colombe caused problems with the breakdown from the front row. They stole possession and disrupted Exeter’s rhythm.

Russell spread the ball from sidelines to sidelines, using stocky hooker Camille Chat to hit the win line. And Juan Imhoff was on hand to score second place for his squad by throwing a pop at the base of the ruck before snipping under the posts.

But the comeback was nipped in the bud.

Harry Williams drove forward to score before half time, with the Chiefs once again showing off their attacking power from five yards away.

Racing replaced Iribaren with Maxime Machenaud at half-time and started the second half with more direction.

Imhoff broke off left after an interception, but was knocked down by a high tackle from Henry Slade. They continued camping in Chiefs’ territory, before Zebo collected another Russell pass to score another try down the right wing.

It seemed like the opportunity had hit Exeter. They lost their lead and returned the ball through careless errors.

Chiefs hooker Jack Yeandle (center) drinks a well-deserved beer alongside the victorious squad

Although Slade pushed his side back after Nowell intercepted a pass from Russell, the Parisians clawed their way back to 28-17 to create a finish in the stands. Camille Chat drove over from a lineout before Maxime Machenaud kicked a penalty.

Tomas Francis was crazy for a knock-on in the 72nd minute and a late Racing win seemed inevitable.

They built 19 stages on the Chiefs tryline, but were handed over by Sam Hidalgo Clyne. And Simmonds kicked a late penalty to end the evening, which will live in Exeter’s memory for a long time to come.

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