Exeter booked a home quarter-final in the Heineken Champions Cup by beating La Rochelle 33-14 at Sandy Park.
And it could mean a last-eight clash against holders Saracens later this season, depending on results in Sunday’s final pool stage flurries.
The Chiefs were not at their best early on, but they ultimately cruised to a bonus-point victory and secured a first European quarter-final appearance since 2016.
Number eight Sam Simmonds led the way with two tries, while hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, flanker Dave Ewers and substitute scrum-half Stu Townsend also touched down, with Simmonds’ brother Joe kicking four conversions.
La Rochelle claimed an early touchdown by wing Kini Murimurivalu, which Ihaia West converted, while they were also awarded a penalty try.
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But Exeter were unstoppable in the second half, scoring 19 unanswered points to march into the last eight.
England prop Harry Williams returned after a two-week suspension for Exeter, while Dave Dennis and Jonny Hill also featured up front and scrum-half Jack Maunder replaced an injured Nic White.
La Rochelle, beaten at home by Exeter in November, suffered an early blow when their captain Romain Sazy went off injured and was replaced by Thomas Levault.
It was a disruptive opening to the game, and both sides struggled to settle as knock-ons and poor passing hampered progress, with much of the action revolving around halfway.
But Exeter struck from their first attack, punishing La Rochelle after a trademark close-range lineout drive, with Cowan-Dickie touching down and Simmonds converting for a seven-point lead.
La Rochelle were only behind for four minutes, though, responding impressively by attacking from a scrum and sending the powerful Murimurivalu over as he brushed aside three Exeter defenders.
West’s conversion levelled the scores, yet Exeter hit back as more impressive work by their pack ended with Ewers scoring and Simmonds converting.
But La Rochelle were undaunted by the task in front of them, and they drew level again in the 24th minute after new Scotland captain Stuart Hogg was sin-binned.
Irish referee Frank Murphy brandished a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on by Hogg that blocked centre Geoffrey Doumayrou’s pass to full-back Vincent Rattez.
Saracens relegation has been confirmed. https://t.co/KrEkWtypv7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 18, 2020
And Murphy also decided that Hogg’s illegal intervention had stopped a La Rochelle score, and he awarded the French side a penalty try.
The game remained a relatively even contest in terms of territory, yet Exeter were denied a third try on the stroke of half-time, with Joe Simmonds seeing his effort disallowed following obstruction by his team-mate Ian Whitten on West.
Exeter regained the lead after 47 minutes when Sam Simmonds proved unstoppable from just five metres out, and his brother’s successful conversion made it 21-14.
The Chiefs now had momentum, and La Rochelle could not escape from their own 22 as Exeter cranked up the pressure through their forwards.
And the bonus-point try arrived when Exeter shunted the La Rochelle pack backwards in a scrum, and Sam Simmonds claimed his second touchdown.
La Rochelle were struggling to find answers, and they fell further behind in the 62nd minute as Exeter stunned them through a flowing 70-metre move.
Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds set the ball rolling before replacement centre Ollie Devoto made the telling contribution with a scything break, and Townsend took his scoring pass to finish things off.
Joe Simmonds converted, putting Exeter 19 points clear and making their early-game struggles a distant memory.
Freddie Burns has revelled in his younger brother’s Ireland call-up:
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