Defending Heineken Champions Cup champions Exeter have made 14 changes to their round of 16 XV to face Lyon on Saturday but two of their Guinness Six Nations contingent have only made the bench for the Anglo-French Sandy Park clash following last weekend’s 34-18 loss to Gloucester in the Gallagher Premiership.

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The Chiefs had travelled to Kingsholm with a shadow line-up and were always going to shake things up for a European knockout match where the prize for the winners is a home quarter-final next weekend against the winners of the Leinster versus Toulon tie in Dublin, but there is now concern about that last-eight fixture following the cancellation of the Good Friday game in Ireland less than five hours before its scheduled kickoff.      

Coach Rob Baxter has recalled Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray, as well as England trio Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and Henry Slade for what is only the second time Exeter will take the field this season defending the European title they won in last October’s Champions Cup final versus Racing. 

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Exeter opened their Champions Cup account with a December win over Glasgow but their other three pool matches were cancelled due to the pandemic and the tournament organisers are now restarting the competition with a straight knockout format. 

While five of the Exeter Six Nations guns will start versus Lyon, Wales Six Nations title winner Tomas Francis has been kept in reserve as has Sam Skinner, who started for Scotland in their win over France last weekend. Olly Woodburn is the only player from last weekend’s loss at Kingsholm to keep his place in the Exeter XV.  

“This is where the really exciting part of the season starts,” said Baxter. “We have now got the whole squad back together post-Six Nations and as a group, we are excited for what lies ahead. In their absence, everyone who has been here has helped to put the club exactly where we want to be.

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“We are second in the Premiership, so that means it is in our hands if we want to finish in the top two and get that home semi-final, and we are in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. Add to that, the sun is shining, the pitching is firming up, so we cannot ask for any more than that at this stage.

“It’s all or nothing now. It’s knockout rugby from here on in. Yes, it has come a bit earlier than normal, but this is the kind of challenge you expect to face when you are in the Heineken Cup. For us, we see this as a very exciting challenge and one to really go after.”

EXETER: 15. Stuart Hogg; 14. Olly Woodburn, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Ollie Devoto, 11. Tom O’Flaherty; 10. Joe Simmonds (capt), 9. Jack Maunder; 1. Alec Hepburn, 2. Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3. Harry Williams, 4. Jonny Gray, 5. Jonny Hill, 6. Dave Ewers, 7. Jacques Vermeulen, 8. Sam Simmonds. Reps: 16. Jack Yeandle, 17. Ben Moon, 18. Tomas Francis, 19. Sam Skinner, 20. Jannes Kirsten, 21. Stu Townsend, 22. Harvey Skinner, 23. Ian Whitten.

LYON: 15. Toby Arnold; 14. Xavier Mignot, 13. Pierre-Louis Barassi, 12. Charlie Ngatai (capt), 11. Noa Nakaitaci; 10. Jonathan Wisniewski, 9. Baptiste Couilloud; 1. Vivien Devisme, 2. Jeremie Maurouard, 3. Francisco Gomez Kodela, 4. Felix Lambey, 5. Izack Jon Rodda, 6. Dylan Cretin, 7. Colby Fainga’a, 8. Patrick Sobela. Reps: 16. Mickael Ivaldi, 17. Xavier Chiocci, 18. Joe Taufete’e, 19. Mickael Guillard, 20. Alex Tulou, 21. Jean-Marc Doussain, 22. Thibaut Regard, 23. Clement Laporte.

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