There was no greater rugby story in 2020 than Exeter clinching the double, beating Racing in the Heineken Champions Cup final at Bristol and then repeating the dose versus Wasps in the Gallagher Premiership decider seven October days later at Twickenham.
Life with a target on the back as defending champions hasn’t been an issue. Six wins in their last nine league games has them primed to secure a home semi-final in June but they had only played a single European game, a win over Glasgow 16 weeks ago before the plug was pulled on the pool stages.
Rob Baxter reported a heightened sense of expectation was around the club this week following the return of their Guinness Six Nations players to the fold. Add in the resumption of Europe and the feeling was things were about to come right at just the right time versus Lyon with a home quarter-final up for grabs versus Leinster.
It took a while for that inkling to be put into practice, though, the rusty-looking Chiefs suffering early set-piece issues and falling 0-14 behind before they fought back like champions.
They led 26-20 at the break and went on to score seven tries in total in a 47-25 win where a concern come the finish was the sight of Joe Simmonds limping off some minutes earlier following a trip. Here is how their players rated in a match where Exeter scored their most points ever in a European game:
The Chiefs have flipped the switch ?
After a shaky start, they've fought their way back into it!
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 3, 2021
15. STUART HOGG – 6
Back in harness at the club following a Six Nations that culminated in that boisterous celebration in Paris, it took a while for him to find a groove. Couldn’t shut the door defensively for Lyon’s two early tries, but a couple of carries helped shift momentum and he will be all the better next weekend for getting this club hit-out.
14. OLLY WOODBURN – 7
The only player in this week’s starting XV remaining from the league loss at Gloucester last weekend, he had little involvement early on but came into his own when coming away from his wing to career into space off a training ground lineout attack move that left him giving the try-scoring assist to Tom O’Flaherty. Made an important try-saving tackle on 47 minutes when Lyon threatened after the interval, then finished on the high of latching onto a grubber kick to score.
13. HENRY SLADE – 8
Recovered from his training ground injury with England to play for the first time in three weeks, he judiciously put boot to the ball when needed and was a hard-hitting presence in helping to ward off the early crisis. For instance, it was his tackle that helped win the sealing off penalty that gave Exeter the impetus for the game-levelling try on 29 minutes. Full of running in the second half.
12. OLLIE DEVOTO – 6
Could be in the dock defensively for jumping out of the line but went on to run the decoy that created the space for the try-creating Woodburn break, selflessness rewarded on the stroke of half-time when he got in under the posts for his own try. A useful 65 minutes in re-establishing his long on-ice partnership with Slade.
11. TOM O’FLAHERTY – 6
Both Lyon bursts for their early tries happened in his vicinity, something that will interest Leinster in the quarter-finals next weekend, but he bounded back. Held up over the line on 22 minutes, there was no stopping him seven minutes later with an excellent finish. Needed patching up for blood early in the second half, returning with a scrum cap after treatment.
10. JOE SIMMONDS – 7
Ensured Exeter kept their composure and didn’t go away from what they do very well, kicking penalties to the corner and eventually turning the screw. There was a rare knock-on under dropping ball on 35 minutes and a worrying cramp-enforced limp after getting tripped up 14 minutes from time, but he will have enjoyed the attitude his team showed in their fightback.
9. JACK MAUNDER – 7
Had to dig in during a difficult opening where Lyon were a nuisance and there was no comfort moving whatever possession Exeter did have. It was his box-kick, which Lyon allowed to bounce, that sparked the pressure with the Chiefs trailing by 14. His team’s response ignited his efficiency and his alertness was visible in the quickly tapped penalty that created an Exeter try. Lasted 56 minutes before leaving with a view to next weekend. Before that, he will feature this Sunday in an exclusive RugbyPass interview.
1. ALEC HEPBURN – 6
Missed the tackle on Toby Arnold in the lead-up to Baptiste Couilloud sixth-minute Lyon try, then spilt the ball on the carry less than two minutes later. However, he stuck at it, his tenacity evident in the 24th-minute carry that earned a breakdown penalty. Had his hair tugged when another scrum broke up in a confrontation, resulting in a penalty against Exeter being reversed in their favour. Was positive in grabbing loose early second-half ball but was gone on 48 minutes.
Look at that clever little kick from Stuart Townsend ?
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 3, 2021
2. LUKE COWAN-DICKIE – 7
England may have crashed but the Six Nations was progress for the hooker, switching from bench to starter. He had his share of adversity here, though, missing the target with his first throw, getting held up over the line on 14 minutes and then knocking on in contact before another lineout loss. Hung on in there to impressively turn it around, a lineout drive forcing the first of two Lyon sin-binnings. Made a big second-half turnover after the try-saving Woodburn tackle before departing at 33-20.
3. HARRY WILLIAMS – 7
Consigned Wales Six Nations title winner Tomas Francis to the bench but conceded an early scrum penalty for a collapse. Hit back with a set-piece free-kick and a penalty to help launch the Exeter comeback. Conceded a penalty when up against the replacement loosehead near the break but his resilience was quickly seen as he won a penalty at the next scrum, that possession leading towards Devoto’s try. Gone on 48 minutes, leaving Francis to demolish Lyon at the set-piece, the French coughing up a yellow card and a penalty try.
4. JONNY GRAY – 6
Banged up shoulder ruled him out of Scotland’s joyous exploits in France, he encountered repeated penalty trouble here before finding some reward. Powerful gallop in the lead-up to Ewers’ score on 51 minutes but he departed three minutes later for Sam Skinner.
5. JONNY HILL – 8
Beaten at the first Exeter lineout by Dylan Cretin, a costly error that gave away the possession for Lyon’s second score. More than made amends, though, by scoring the first Exeter try on 15 minutes with a close-in drive after multiple pick and go. Eleven minutes later he was scoring again, an Exeter quick tap leading to a ruck that he went from after throwing a dummy. Came up with a second-half lineout steal when Lyon still had some wind in their sails. Finished with 53 metres off 13 carries and the sponsor’s man of the match award, an excellent shift.
6. DAVE EWERS – 7
Was involved in the legal tackle with Williams that had Felix Lambey going off early. Tackled off the ball on 21 minutes to give Exeter the chance to go to the corner and build pressure. Was rewarded when scoring his team’s fifth try which finished off Lyon on 51 minutes.
7. JACQUES VERMEULEN – 7
Put in a couple of hard carries when momentum was against Exeter early on, and his defiance was later encapsulated around the 54th-minute mark when he carried hard after Skinner stole a lineout and then won a turnover penalty a minute later after Chiefs had cleared.
8. SAM SIMMONDS – 8
After all his excellent form in the Premiership, this was the shop window to greater fuel the fire that he would be a worthy Lions tour bolter. Appeared wearing a pile of strapping above and below his left knee and was slow to hit his stride. Seeing him getting nowhere off the base of a scrum with the score at 5-17 was an unusual sight but he then started making big in-roads, finishing with 64 metres from seven carries and breaking the gainline on five occasions.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 3, 2021
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