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Exeter edge to first European crown after stunning final battle with Racing

Simon Zebo scored two tries for the Top 14 side as they came up short in Bristol.
Oct 17th 2020, 6:48 PM 43,926 87

Updated Oct 17th 2020, 8:30 PM

Exeter 31

Racing 27

THEIR JOURNEY TO the peak of European rugby has been remarkable and Exeter Chiefs had to emerge victorious from one of the great Heineken Champions Cup finals to clinch their crown.

Battling to their first-ever Champions Cup title, Rob Baxter’s men just about inched past an enthralling effort from Racing 92, themselves looking for a maiden trophy in this competition.

stuart-hogg-jack-nowell-and-sam-simmonds-celebrate-with-try-scorer-henry-slade Exeter are Heineken Champions Cup winners for the first time in their history. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Top 14 side were outstanding for long spells, with the superb Simon Zebo scoring two tries from fullback, but they will ultimately have huge regrets about their part in Exeter surging into a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

While Racing fought their way back to within a point in the closing 10 minutes and came within inches of nudging ahead, Exeter had enough muscular strength, organisational acumen, and dogged resilience to earn this European title just 10 years after they were promoted into the Premiership.

Few neutral fans would have argued had Racing edged it, particularly as they thrilled through maverick out-half Finn Russell, who prompted their best moments but was also picked off for an Exeter try in the second half.

After a game that had everything – eight tries, big errors, major momentum swings, powerful forward play, stunning linebreaks, and controversial refereeing calls – it was Exeter Chiefs who were left celebrating at a largely empty Ashton Gate.

While Exeter’s Irish contingent of Ian Whitten, who started at inside centre, and Gareth Steenson, who was on the bench, were part of that ecstasy, it was dejection for Racing’s Irish trio of Zebo, Donnacha Ryan, and attack coach Mike Prendergast.

simon-zebo-scores-his-sides-opening-try Simon Zebo scored two tries for Racing. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Racing scrum-half Teddy Iribaren had a disastrous opening quarter in which his errors – missing touch with a penalty, taking a lineout quickly and getting turned over, then putting Juan Imhoff under pressure with a risky pass – helped Exeter into the close-range positions they thrive in.

A maul try from hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and then number eight Joe Simmonds’ finish demonstrated the Chiefs’ mauling, latching, and pick-and-jamming excellence to leave them 14-0 ahead with just 17 minutes gone.

Racing finally awoke from their early slumber in response, with Russell guiding a brilliant passage of phase-play attack that started in their own half and ended with the Scottish out-half throwing a beautiful left-handed miss pass wide to Zebo, who finished in the right corner outside Jack Nowell.

Russell – place-kicking instead of Iribaren – couldn’t convert that score but did add the extras after another fluid Racing attack that featured his pass freeing Zebo up the left before the French side worked infield and wing Juan Imhoff picked to snipe over from a few metres out.

Suddenly, Racing were back within two points at 14-12 but Exeter finished the half with their third try, stemming from Russell’s attempted left-foot grubber being blocked and the Chiefs’ chase forcing Racing to concede a five-metre lineout.

juan-imhoff-scores-his-sides-second-try Juan Imhoff celebrates his first-half try. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Top 14 outfit collapsed the ensuing maul attempt but Exeter used penalty advantage to work their way infield with more muscular carrying and tighthead prop Harry Williams forced his way through Dominic Bird’s tackle under the posts, with out-half Joe Simmonds adding his third conversion for 21-12.

Racing came out of the half-time break in determined fashion as Imhoff pulled off an intercept pass and drew a high tackle from Henry Slade, the England centre escaping a yellow card but handing the French side a visit into the Exeter 22, which they duly took.

After the forwards had looked to batter their way forward, Russell threw a simple pass wide to Zebo, who arced to his right and finished smartly through Tom O’Flaherty and Stuart Hogg.

Maxime Machenaud – on for Iribiaren at the break – couldn’t convert and then Russell showed how his high-risk game can backfire as he floated a pass wide to the left near his own 22 that Nowell was able to pick off with ease and offload back inside for Slade to score.

Simmonds added the conversion for 28-17 but Racing responded in try-scoring fashion once again as hooker Camille Chat barged over off the back of a maul for the game’s eighth try in the 50th minute. Machenaud converted this time for 28-24.

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jack-yeandle-and-joe-simmonds-celebrates-after-winning-the-heineken-champions-cup Exeter are European champions. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having defended muscularly for the next 10 minutes, Racing sparked back into attacking life heading into the final quarter as Russell’s chip just evaded the chasing Virimi Vakatawa before the outside centre made a big break soon after, following an initial bust by Zebo. Exeter hauled Vakatawa down short of the tryline but failed to roll clear and Machenaud slotted the penalty to leave Racing a point behind.

Racing sent on the highly-experienced Kurtley Beale directly after that shot at goal, although it seemed an odd decision to remove Zebo to make way, given how the Irishman was creating and finishing opportunities.

Racing continued to apply pressure as they sensed the momentum had swung in their favour and they were given a massive boost in the 72nd minute when Exeter replacement tighthead prop Tomas Francis was sin-binned for batting down Machenaud’s offload inside to Imhoff near the left touchline.

Racing kicked the penalty into the corner and then – ignoring a possible drop-goal attempt – proceeded to hammer at the Exeter defence, with Antonie Claassen stopped literally centimetres short of the tryline, where Chiefs’ sub scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne won a questionable turnover penalty to lift the massive pressure.

There was more last-gasp and seemingly needless drama as referee Nigel Owens asked his TMO to double-check the match clock after Exeter out-half Simmonds had slotted a last-minute penalty to seal the deal, but the celebrations were sparked as the Welshman blew the final whistle.

There won’t be a cow milked in Devon tonight, but Baxter and co. will already be eyeing a double in next weekend’s Premiership final.

Exeter scorers:

Tries: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds, Harry Williams, Henry Slade

Conversions: Joe Simmonds [4 from 4]

Penalties: Joe Simmonds [1 from 1]

Racing 92 scorers:

Tries: Simon Zebo [2], Juan Imhoff, Camille Chat

Conversions: Finn Russell [1 from 2], Maxime Machenaud [1 from 2]

Penalties: Maxime Machenaud [1 from 1]

EXETER: Stuart Hogg; Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Ian Whitten (Ollie Devoto ’59), Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds (captain), Jack Maunder (Sam Hidalgo-Clyne ’65); Alec Hepburn (Ben Moon ’56), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Jack Yeandle ’56), Harry Williams (Tom Francis ’56 – yellow card ’72); Jonny Gray (Sam Skinner ’59), Jonny Hill; Dave Ewers, Jacques Vermeulen (Jannes Kirsten ’56), Sam Simmonds.

Replacements: Gareth Steenson.

RACING 92: Simon Zebo (Kurtley Beale ’65); Louis Dupichot, Virimi Vakatawa (Olivier Klemenczak ’76), Henry Chavancy (captain), Juan Imhoff; Finn Russell, Teddy Iribaren (Maxime Machenaud ‘HT); Eddy Ben Arous (Hassane Kolingar ’51), Camille Chat (Teddy Baubigny ’51), Georges Henri Colombe (Ali Oz ’51); Bernard Le Roux (Donnacha Ryan ’67), Dominic Bird; Wenceslas Lauret, Fabien Sanconnie, Antonie Claassen (Boris Palu ’76).

Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU).

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Murray Kinsella

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