Exeter's Irish stalwarts victorious but Simon Zebo superb in defeat for Racing

Gareth Steenson and Ian Whitten have been key men in the English club’s rise.

IAN WHITTEN SAYS he “sort of joined halfway along” in typically humble fashion but there’s no doubting that the Ulsterman has played an integral role in the heartwarming Exeter Chiefs journey that has now seen them crowned champions of Europe.

33-year-old Whitten kept his place in Exeter’s number 12 shirt ahead of the skillful England international Ollie Devoto for the decider against Racing 92 and delivered a characteristically hard-working, no-fuss performance in midfield for Rob Baxter’s side.

ian-whitten-comes-up-against-henry-chavancy Ian Whitten has been a stalwart for Exeter. Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

In many ways, Whitten is an embodiment of this Exeter group – understated, effective, humble, and not an individual star. Having joined from Ulster in 2012 and played for the Chiefs well over 200 times, he’s now a Champions Cup winner and could add a second Premiership medal to his CV if they can secure their double next weekend against Wasps.

His fellow Ulster native and Exeter stalwart, Gareth Steenson, didn’t get off the bench in today’s final but his place as a Chiefs legend has long since been secured.

The man whose superb kicking secured Exeter’s promotion into the Premiership in 2010, Steenson is set for retirement from playing at the end of this delayed 2019/20 campaign and so it’s fitting that he was still involved as the Chiefs completed their journey to the top of the European game.

The 36-year-old is set to join the Devon club’s coaching staff when he hangs up his boots, meaning he will be part of the efforts to ensure this is the first European star of many. Exeter’s plan is to stay at the top for years to come, with Irishman Ruairí Cushion one of those working in the club’s academy pipeline to produce more homegrown stars like Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

Steenson is beyond his playing peak now, of course, but his quality over the past decade has been key to Exeter’s rise. The out-half never got an offer to return to Ireland at any stage, while Whitten was similarly off the radar for the Irish provinces.

The policy of not selecting players based abroad for the national team meant there was no opportunity to win Ireland caps but Whitten and Steenson can reflect on their moves to England having worked out perfectly. Exeter, meanwhile, have Steenson and Whitten on top of a long list of under-hyped recruits who have proven to be hugely important.

gareth-steenson-celebrates-with-the-heineken-champions-cup Gareth Steenson has been a key driver in Exeter's rise. Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

Meanwhile, Racing 92 fullback Simon Zebo had one of the best European games of his career as he scored two tries in the French side’s losing effort in the decider against the Chiefs.

With ‘Axel’ written on one of his wristbands to honour the late Anthony Foley and ‘Gags’ on the other in tribute to his grandfather, Zebo played like a man who is entirely comfortable on the big occasion.

He took his brace of tries sharply on the end of Finn Russell’s passes, while his bust of the Exeter defence with a pirouette nearly resulted in Virimi Vakatawa scoring on the next phase in the second half.

Rather bizarrely, Racing opted to replace Zebo almost immediately after that even as they continued to chase the lead. Bringing on the creative Kurtley Beale made sense but surely the in-form Zebo could have been moved to the wing.

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The 30-year-old Irishman is out of contract next summer but his performance in Bristol will underline to Racing that Zebo still possesses major quality, particularly as he looks in such good physical condition. He has overcome a very testing time with injuries and returned in recent times to remind everyone of his ability.

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

While Dominic Bird and Bernard le Roux had some big moments in the second row, Racing may wonder whether Donnacha Ryan’s calming influence and infectious aggression would have been better utilised in the starting XV rather than off the bench. The Tipp native had to wait until the 67th minute to get stuck in.

While the French club’s attack coach, Limerick man Mike Prendergast, will share in the disappointment and frustration within the Racing group, there were more signs of the positive habits he has encouraged in their attack – with back three players popping up close to the rucks and working hard around the pitch, Russell using a few smart attacking kicks, and forwards keeping shape for the key passages that led to tries.

Russell’s ability to create was evident for Zebo’s two tries but he was picked off for Slade’s second-half try, while it’s unclear whether Racing planned for a drop-goal scenario. They didn’t employ the tactic before Antoine Claassen was controversially turned over just inches short of Exeter’s tryline in the closing minutes.

Nonetheless, Prendergast’s reputation continues to rise and he will expect to help Racing back to the top end of European rugby next year.

Tonight, Whitten and Steenson can toast the central roles they have played in Exeter’s remarkable journey to the peak.

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Murray Kinsella

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