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Exeter’s European hopes dashed as dominant La Rochelle set up repeat final

By PA
BORDEAUX, FRANCE - APRIL 30: Henry Slade of Exeter Chiefs looks dejected after the team's defeat in the Heineken Champions Cup Semi Finals match between La Rochelle and Exeter Chiefs at Stade Matmut Atlantique on April 30, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Defending Heineken Champions Cup holders La Rochelle set up a repeat of last year’s final against Leinster with a 47-28 victory over Exeter in Bordeaux.

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Exeter were hoping to give a host of stalwart players leaving the club at the end of the season a perfect send-off by reaching the May 20 final in Dublin.

But they came up against a quality outfit who crossed for seven tries, with the Chiefs scoring three late touchdowns to make it appear a much more respectable scoreline.

Exeter asked all the questions in the early stages in front of a sell-out 41,000 crowd as they looked to counter La Rochelle’s usual fast start, and they were rewarded with an early try.

The Chiefs worked a training ground move from a tap penalty and France-bound Sam Simmonds forced his way over, with brother Joe Simmonds adding the extras.

It was just the start Exeter wanted, but La Rochelle delivered an instant riposte.

Initial good work by captain Gregory Alldritt led to fly-half Antoine Hastoy chipping the ball over the Chiefs defence for South African winger Raymond Rhule to hack the ball on and dot down in the corner, with Hastoy converting to level it all up at 7-7.

The hosts lost influential flanker Levani Botia to a leg injury at the midway point of the half, but they were celebrating their second try moments later.

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A period of pressure on the Exeter line saw Alldritt beautifully craft a gap for centre UJ Seuteni to waltz through and score beside the posts, and a simple Hastoy conversion gave La Rochelle a seven-point lead.

Just prior to the half-hour mark, Alldritt had a try ruled out by the Television Match Official for a neck roll, but the Chiefs then suffered a damaging couple of minutes.

First, Scotland international lock Jonny Gray had to be carried off the field with a left ankle injury, and after La Rochelle had kicked a penalty to the corner, hooker Dan Frost was sin-binned by referee Jaco Peyper for pulling down a driving maul.

Alldritt attacked the blindside off the back of a five-metre scrum to get his side’s third try soon after.

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And right on the stroke of half-time, La Rochelle showed their class in attack once again when a superb handling move involving backs and forwards made the most of their one-man advantage and it was finished off behind the posts by Kiwi scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

Hastoy slotted the simple conversion and Chiefs were left with a huge mountain to climb after the break at 29-7 down.

The French onslaught continued straight after the interval, and despite the Chiefs being back to full strength, Hastoy’s delicate cross-field kick picked out Rhule to step inside the defender and grab his second try of the game.

Hooker Pierre Bourgarit added a sixth touchdown from a driving maul, before Chiefs responded with a try by replacement prop Josh Iosefa-Scott after Sam Simmonds had been tap tackled just short of the line.

Kerr-Barlow grabbed his second try before Exeter’s Olly Woodburn and Jack Yeandle provided late scores for the beaten Chiefs.

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