What is rare is wonderful and the magnificent ascent of Exeter from the lower leagues in England to the top of the tree in Europe is one heck of an amazing story made all the more special by the thrilling entertainment lapped up by fans who watched this Champions Cup final won by the Chiefs 31-27 against Racing.

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Eight tries were equally shared but Exeter converted all four of their five-pointers while Racing only converted two,  and those four missing points were what separated the teams at the finish. 

For Exeter, it capped a remarkable rise to prominence. It was seven years ago in the Chiefs match programme against Leinster at the end of their first-ever pool campaign in the Champions Cup that owner Tony Rowe wrote: “I’m sure the lessons we have learnt from our various encounters in Europe this season will ultimately stand us in good stead in the long run.”

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Exeter coach Rob Baxter’s pre-final thoughts

How very prescient… that was January 2013 and now in October 2020 Exeter stand proud as champions of Europe following a final that ebbed and flowed. 

The Chiefs, who will now go for the double in next weekend’s Premiership final, got off to a flyer, tries in the opening 16 minutes from Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds putting them 14-0 ahead before Racing cut the margin to two with tries in reply from Simon Zebo and Juan Imhoff.

Exeter had the last say in the first half, Harry Williams burrowing over, and while Zebo nabbed his second soon after the interval, Henry Slade’s try after Jack Nowell picked off a Finn Russell pass shunted them 28-17 ahead.

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Racing weren’t done and after the gap was closed to a single point following a Camille Chat try and kicks from Maxime Machenaud, the match was decided in the closing stages with Exeter prop Tomas Francis in the sin bin for a deliberate knock-on.

With a man advantage, Racing piled on the pressure with 19 phases near the line but rather going for the lead-taking drop goal with around five minutes remaining, Antonie Claassen was penalised near the line after replacement Sam Hidalgo-Clyne got in over the ball. 

There was still time for some comedic confusion, referee Nigel Owens consulting his TMO about whether the clock was in the red or not when Joe Simmonds’ last-minute penalty went over the crossbar. It was over the 80 and the final whistle sparked an incredible Exeter celebration. Here’s how RugbyPass rated the Devon club’s players on their memorable breakthrough evening:

15. Stuart Hogg – 6

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It was a low frills performance for the high standards full-back, the action seldom enough coming the Scot’s way. Still made 17 metres off three carries.

14. Jack Nowell – 8

Began with the huge touch-finder that was the genesis for the territory that led to the opening try, and then set-up Slade for his early second-half score by pick-pocketing Russell. Needed running repairs for blood but finished a very worthy winner. 

13. Henry Slade – 8 

Could have been in the bin when he scored in the second half, the midfielder getting away with only the concession of a penalty when he tackled high. That was a rare slip on a day when he was defensively resolute with Virimi Vakatawa in opposition.

12. Ian Whitten – 6

One of two changes to the XV from last week’s league semi-final win over Bath, his 200th appearance for the club ultimately produced a sweet result but it was sticky going at times. Initially played 58 minutes before giving way to a capable Ollie Devoto and then briefly returned while Nowell was in the blood bin.  

11. Tom O’Flaherty – 7

So keen was he in getting involved that he was part of the maul that drove over Cowan-Dickie for the opening score. Believed he had secured a huge turnover before a stoppage led to a TMO review and the yellow card for Francis. A sweet runner, he clocked up his metres. 

10. Joe Simmonds – 8

Looked so very composed compared to the errors that Russell made at crucial times. Perfect off the tee and excellent in asking Racing questions with moments of variety. For someone who doesn’t look physically imposing, he wasn’t shy of getting stuck in with his tackling, bravery that helped secure him the official man of the match award.        

9. Jack Maunder – 6

Nearly had a try on 21 minutes off a Slade pass but he couldn’t get away from Racing prop Eddy Ben Arous’ last-ditch tackle. That was about the only time he was seen probing as he preferred the pass option. Replacement Hidalgo-Clyne will grab the rave reviews for his crucial penalty-winning intervention with Racing hammering away at the line.   

1. Alec Hepburn – 7

Won a scrum penalty on 26 minutes to relieve some pressure at a time when Racing were fighting their way back from a poor start. Loads of heavy-duty work, the sort that nearly always goes unseen, before he was subbed for Ben Moon. 

2. Luke Cowan-Dickie – 7 

His first lineout throw was stolen but he was soon marching over at the back of a maul for the opening try on eight minutes. That set the tone for what was to follow, a rip-roaring forwards battle, but he left the fray with 25 minutes still remaining, enabling Jack Yeandle to get stuck in with his busy tackling.   

3. Harry Williams – 7 

Another who was hooked on 55 minutes but he was another who departed pleased as a try-scorer as he was excellent burrowing over from close range on the blow of half-time. Had clocked up a decent tackle stat when he left for Francis, one shy of double figures. 

4. Jonny Gray – 7

Took the lineout catch for the opening score and nearly had a try himself on 15 minutes only for the ball to escape his grasp. Battled hard but eventually gave way for Sam Skinner. 

5. Jonny Hill – 8 

Escaped a possible citing last week for a tackle on Taulupe Faletau and he made the most of that reprieve by being a nuisance here. A knock-on denied him a 13th-minute try, he was then caught static by Imhoff for Racing’s second try and was also at fault for the penalty that left it 28-27, but those errors never dimmed his brilliant enthusiasm for a grind where he was his team’s busiest tackler.  

6. Dave Ewers – 8 

Penalised on his first carry but didn’t take long to have a very positive effect, his attitude in defence of considerable help in ensuring Exeter weren’t denied their deserved moment of glory. 

7. Jacques Vermeulen – 6 

A quiet outing by his standards, the South African was another of the quartet that exited around 15 minutes into the second half. Fellow countryman Jannes Kirsten was a more than worthy replacement. 

8. Sam Simmonds – 8 

His scent for the try-line, which had been evident all campaign, materialised again on 16 minutes when he crossed but he was excellent on both sides of the ball and is surely in line for an England recall with this type of consistent form which post-game earned him the Anthony Foley award as European player of the year.  

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