Chiefs are crowned European champions after beating Racing 31-27 at Ashton Gate
Exeter win Heineken Champions Cup 2019-20
Exeter Chiefs are European champions.
The English side’s brutal efficiency when given opportunities in their opponents’ 22 came to the fore yet again as they beat Racing 31-27 in the Heineken Champions Cup final at Ashton Gate.
The triumph marks an incredible rise for the Chiefs, who were promoted to the English top flight only ten years ago. It also means West Country sides hold both European titles after Bristol’s Challenge Cup win over Toulon on Friday night.
Rob Baxter’s side did not have it all their own way in a match of high tension and drama, and they had to see out the closing stages with just 14 men as Racing threatened to repeat the dramatics of their semi-final when they beat Saracens with a late try.
Yet the Chiefs defence held firm and then they were awarded a penalty to seal the victory in the final minute, only for more drama to follow as there was confusion over whether the match had passed the 80-minute mark when Joe Simmonds’s kick went through the posts with the stadium clock showing there were two seconds left.
It was a somewhat anti-climatic finish for Exeter as they had to wait for Nigel Owens to get confirmation that he could blow the final whistle – the stadium clock was out of sync – but then came the celebrations.
While the Racing contingent in the stands tried to create an atmosphere in a stadium without fans by blasting regularly on air horns, Exeter went about things in a quieter, more measured manner, albeit one that was extremely effective.
Their slow walk onto the pitch before kick-off was in contrast to the pace Jack Nowell showed in chasing down Teddy Iribaren, the Racing scrum-half whose error-riddled performance saw him replaced at half-time, and winning a penalty.
Another penalty followed from the ensuing lineout and Luke Cowan-Dickie touched down for the opening try after eight minutes as the Chiefs launched one of their trademark mauls.
They doubled their lead in the 16th minute, this time opting for a tap from the penalty – another of their preferred moves this season – and Sam Simmonds, with a little help from Dave Ewers, powered over.
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Then, suddenly, Racing were back in the game. They moved the ball to the right, Chiefs wing Tom O’Flaherty blitzed up in defence and Simon Zebo found the space on the outside to score in the corner midway through the first half.
The French side narrowed the gap further when Juan Imhoff got through the Exeter defence with a dummy after a sustained period of pressure in the 22.
That made it 14-12 after 33 minutes but the Chiefs went into the break with a nine-point lead with their third try just before half-time whistle.
Another good chase from Nowell gave Exeter a five-metre lineout and they patiently went through a series of pick-and-goes before Harry Williams barrelled over under the posts.
There was a dramatic start to the second half when Imhoff intercepted a Chiefs pass and broke down the wing before being tackled into touch by Henry Slade. The TMO came in to look at the tackle – it was ruled high and Racing got a penalty but there was no yellow card for Slade as the officials ruled his arm had initially hit on the shoulder and then ridden up.
Zebo went over for his second shortly after as Finn Russell threw a long pass to the full-back, who picked an arcing line and backed himself to get over despite the attentions of two Chiefs defenders.
Chiefs hit back immediately as Nowell picked off another long Russell pass, slipped the ball inside to Slade and the centre had a simple run-in.
Racing then turned into the Chiefs for a few minutes as they set a lineout drive from close range and Camille Chat splintered off to score in the corner. After 50 minutes, it was 28-24 to Exeter and tensions started to rise.
The Chiefs went through nearly 20 phases in the Racing half but struggled to make significant territory gains before the French side won a breakdown penalty – one of many in the game.
Virimi Vakatawa had been kept in check pretty well by the Chiefs but he made an powerful break in the 64th minute and only an Ollie Devoto tackle five metres out stopped him scoring. Racing did get a penalty, though, and Maxime Machenaud slotted it to make it a one-point game with 15 minutes to go.
Racing launched a strong attack from a scrum in their own half and took play to close to Exeter’s line. Then Tomas Francis was yellow-carded for a deliberate knock-on as he tapped down a Machenaud pass close to the line.
There was no penalty try with other defenders who would have been able to cover, but it did lead to a multi-phased attack and Antonie Claassen looked like he was going to go over for a crucial try only to be held up and Exeter to win a penalty. It was an impressive defensive stand from the Chiefs and a pivotal moment in the match.
The Chiefs cleared the threat, retained possession and were then awarded a penalty of their own in the final minute that Simmonds slotted from long range.
That delay in blowing the final whistle didn’t dampen celebrations. Baxter admitted it was far from Exeter’s best performance, but they got the result that mattered.
“My emotions are all over the place – it was a funny game; it wasn’t an Exeter Chiefs type of game,” he said. “We had pressure from driving lineouts but we couldn’t piece the game together.
“In some ways it was our poorest attack and defence of the season. But at the end of the day we won the game on the scoreboard and that’s what people will remember in two years.
“We’ve had our first game in the European semi-finals and the European final and we’ve won both, so it’s pretty nice to learn lessons by winning. Attitude saw us through.”
Now the European title has been achieved the Chiefs’ focus will switch to doing the double with the Gallagher Premiership final next weekend.
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