Gloucester, after being talked up prior to the game, fell to a disappointing loss at home to Toulouse, admittedly the reigning French champions, whilst Bath were unable to get passed Ulster at the Rec, in a game that will have them kicking themselves in hindsight. Sale Sharks failed to fire their shots away at Glasgow Warriors, Harlequins were comfortably and well beaten by Clermont and Saracens, having opted to focus on the Gallagher Premiership, were dispatched by Racing 92 in Paris.
The only other win for English clubs came via the resurgent Northampton Saints, whose 25-14 win over Lyon at Franklin’s Gardens was only a try bonus point away from being the perfect start for Chris Boyd’s side. It was an encouraging display from Northampton and bodes well for the coming rounds, but in terms of efficiency and the eye-catching nature of the performance, it fell short of what Exeter pulled off on France’s west coast.
It was no shadow La Rochelle side, either, with the likes of Victor Vito, Dany Priso and Grégory Alldritt all involved up front and the incisive talents of Geoffrey Doumayrou, Levani Botia and Jérémy Sinzelle deployed in the back line. It was a healthy and loaded XV that is more than capable of running through, round and over teams, particularly at home.
Impressive away wins in Europe are nothing new for Exeter, though. Their 27-24 win in Montpellier in 2017 was a memorable one for the club and its fans, whilst they recorded a 20-12 win over Bordeaux the season before. In recent seasons, they’ve also managed to pick up losing bonus points away at Munster, Ulster, Castres, Glasgow Warriors, Clermont and Leinster, as well as beating local rivals Gloucester last season.
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They’ve been doing enough on the road to qualify for the quarter-finals in those campaigns, though those results have usually come after the club had dug a hole for itself at Sandy Park, a venue which, despite being one of the toughest places to travel to in the Premiership, is not a European fortress.
In the 2016/17 season, they were beaten by Clermont and Bordeaux at Sandy Park, with Leinster raiding their Devon home the following year. Last season, they drew with Munster and lost to Gloucester in their home pool games. In fact, the only time that Exeter have made the knockout stages of the tournament, the 2015/16 season, was the only campaign that they had a clean sweep of wins in their three home games.
As good as they have been on the road in Europe, the club’s home form has let them down. Whether that is a mental barrier for the squad, the coaching staff not developing the right game plan for contests in which they should be considered favourites or simply opposition teams raising their own games for the challenge, it is something which needs to change if Exeter are to go from Premiership heavyweights to European contenders.
The complete nature of their win over La Rochelle certainly promises optimism for the club’s expectant fanbase, although like in seasons past, it will count for nothing if they can’t consolidate that performance and result at home against Glasgow this weekend.
If they can repeat that level of performance against the Scottish side, there’s a good chance that they will head into the December back-to-back fixtures with two wins and 10 points to their name. Their back-to-back comes against Sale Sharks, a side they know well from the Premiership and against whom they have had considerable success in recent seasons. On paper, Exeter look as though they could be in very good shape for not only qualification, but a home quarter-final come Christmas.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 20, 2019
Paper can be misleading, though, and there a number of home games in the Champions Cup that Exeter have previously prepared for as favourites and then they have come unstuck.
The early return to action of the club’s England contingent was certainly influential in their win over La Rochelle and they will need those players to replicate that against Glasgow on Saturday. Henry Slade’s offensive and defensive decision-making was vital, whilst Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie offered impact from the bench.
Fellow internationals Nic White and Stuart Hogg were also important cogs in the win, with the latter’s meeting with his former team certain to be one of the major narratives going into the game. Both contributed to efficiency of Exeter when in possession, whilst new signing Jacques Vermeulen was a force in the defensive line, as La Rochelle struggled to break down the relentless energy and discipline of the Chiefs.
Vermeulen and Dave Ewers, if the flank pairing is retained when Rob Baxter announces his squad for the game, will have their work cut out keeping Callum Gibbins, Fraser Brown and the mobile Glasgow pack quiet at the breakdown. If they can, and Exeter enjoy relatively secure ball at the contact area, they have shown they have the offensive precision to hurt teams in multi-phase attacks.
Something which will boost confidence in the south-west is that Glasgow’s away form to start the season has been poor. They have lost to the Cheetahs and Dragons so far in the Guinness PRO14 and although they chalked up a win over Zebre earlier this month, Exeter will be the biggest challenge on the road they have faced so far this season. It’s an unenviable task for head coach Dave Rennie, who recently confirmed he will be leaving the club at the end of the season to take up the same role with the Wallabies.
If Exeter are to truly count themselves among contenders for this season’s title, Saturday is the day for them to be ruthless and show they can consistently perform at the level they did last weekend.
The playing squad have experience of European competition, the young and promising players have matured into top-class contributors and with Saracens operating under a dark cloud of their own making, Exeter have now become the posterboys for English rugby.
Any excuses they may have had previously have run out and it’s time for them to make the leap.
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