RUGBY – CHAMPIONS CUP
EXETER CHIEFS 31, RACING 92 27
By Ollie Young – firstname.lastname@example.org
After the most breathless of Champions Cup finals, Exeter Chiefs were crowned kings of Europe with a nail-biting victory over French side Racing 92 at Ashton Gate.
In a game that had just about everything, Exeter thought they had the final tied up on at least three occasions but each time, Racing fought back. As time ticked down, with Exeter only one point ahead and a man light with Tomas Francis in the sin-bin, the Sandy Park outfit somehow stood firm and Joe Simmonds’ late penalty finally sealed glory.
Before arguably the greatest European final ever seen, Exeter made just two changes from the side that defeated Bath in the Premiership semifinal seven days previously.
Both alterations came behind the scrum, with Jack Nowell recovering from a foot injury to take his place on the right wing as Olly Woodburn missed out. Ian Whitten came in at centre alongside Henry Slade and Ollie Devoto dropped to the replacements bench.
At an empty Ashton Gate, the Chiefs raced from the traps and after just seven minutes they found themselves in Racing 92’s red-zone. A five-metre line-out was worked to perfection with Luke Cowan-Dickie’s radar homed in to precision. The England World Cup hooker picked up from the base of the maul and you know the rest.
Cowan-Dickie burrowed over in familiar fashion and with Joe Simmonds knocking over a routine conversion, the Devonians had stolen an early march. Racing 92 were shell-shocked and a number of penalties were conceded by the Parisians as Exeter hunted another try.
With Chiefs banging on the door, it opened again on 15 minutes when Cowan-Dickie left Racing flat-footed by tapping a penalty from close range when a kick to corner was expected. The hooker drove to the line and Sam Simmonds powered over with his brother Joe stretching the Exeter lead to 14-0.
But Racing, with all their star turns, finally found a foothold in proceedings just three minutes later when enigmatic Scottish fly-half Finn Russell passed wide and Irish flyer Simon Zebo outfoxed Tom O’Flaherty. The conversion was missed although Racing were up and running.
Henry Slade then broke free with a touchline burst and his ball back inside couldn’t be gathered by his halfback partner Jack Maunder. A third try could have spelt curtains for Racing but instead, just after the half hour mark, the French side scored again with a brilliant individual try from Juan Imhoff which Russell converted.
At just two points behind, despite starting so poorly, Racing had hauled themselves back into contention although right on the stroke of half-time, Exeter stole a clear march when prop Harry Williams crashed over from close range again. Joe Simmonds kicked his third successful conversion and at 21-12, Exeter were just 40 minutes from glory.
After the interval, it was Racing’s turn to start well and on 43 minutes, Zebo grabbed his second of the match after showing great strength and determination to bust through the cover defence. With Maxime Machenaud taking over the kicking duties, he was unable to add the extras.
There was hardly time for anyone to catch their breath when Exeter scored again as Russell, who continually played on the edge for the entire match, threw out an audacious pass which was intercepted by Nowell.
Streaking clear, the Cornishman drew the last Racing defender and Slade went in under the posts. Joe Simmonds’ conversion stretched the Exeter lead back to 11 points.
If Exeter thought they had finally stolen a march, then Racing came back again on 50 minutes as Camille Chat crashed over from inside the Exeter 22. Machenaud made it a seven-point score and once again, the game was thrown back into the balance.
Virimi Vakatawa went close just after the hour mark when he came within a fingertip of collecting Russell’s inventive chip over the top. However, shortly after, Exeter leaked a penalty right in front of the posts and Machenaud made no mistake.
Down to a one-point ballgame, the Chiefs were wobbling as Racing went for the jugular. The Exeter task was then made an uphill one when referee Nigel Owens spotted a deliberate knock-on close their own try-line by Welsh replacement prop Francis.
The merry-whistle-blower brandished a yellow card and Chiefs would play for the final nine minutes a man short. To the shock of the fortunate few in attendance and the millions glued to their television screens around the world, Russell opted against a shot at goal from the touchline.
Instead, they went for broke and after hammering away at the Chiefs line, also turning down numerous chances for a drop-goal with Australian veteran Kurtley Beale now thrust into the fray.
Remarkably, Exeter held firm and with three minutes left, they won a penalty as Slade kicked clear and the pendulum swung back towards the Chiefs. With Exeter looking to see out the game, referee Owens signalled another penalty with 90 seconds left and it was down to Joe Simmonds to kick Exeter to glory from 40-yards.
The Chiefs skipper, local lad and academy product held his nerve to knock over the penalty and victory was assured. Despite the clock reading 79.59 when the ball went over, the full-time whistle was blown after a mix-up between the clock restarting and the television production crew.
However farcical the ending appeared to be, it mattered not a jot as Exeter, just ten years on from entering the Premiership, are now kings of Europe, thus completing rugby union’s biggest fairy-tale of all time. .
Exeter Chiefs: Stuart Hogg,, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Ian Whitten, Tom O’Flaherty, Joe Simmonds (capt), Jack Maunder, Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Jonny Gray, Jonny Hill, Dave Ewers, Jacques Vermeulen, Sam Simmonds. Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Ben Moon, Tom Francis, Sam Skinner, Jannes Kirsten, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Gareth Steenson, Ollie Devoto.
Racing 92: Simon Zebo, Louis Dupichot, Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy (capt), Juan Imhoff, Finn Russell, Teddy Iribaren, Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat, Georges Henri Colombe, Bernard Le Roux, Dominic Bird, Wenceslas Lauret, Fabien Sanconnie, Antonie Claassen. Replacements: Teddy Baubigny, Hassane Kolingar, Ali Oz, Donnacha Ryan, Boris Palu, Maxime Machenaud, Olivier Klemenczak, Kurtley Beale.