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'I am going to miss these guys because they are amazing players'

By PA
BORDEAUX, FRANCE - APRIL 30: Exeter Chiefs look dejected as they are defeated during the Heineken Cup Champions Cup semi final match between La Rochelle and Exeter Chiefs at Stade Matmut Atlantique on April 30, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter expressed excitement about the club’s future after an era ended with a 47-28 Heineken Champions Cup semi-final defeat to reigning champions La Rochelle.

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The loss in Bordeaux was a farewell performance for a number of Baxter’s frontline stars like Sam and Joe Simmonds, Jack Nowell, Stuart Hogg and Jannes Kirsten, unless they are picked for a dead rubber Premiership game against London Irish next weekend.

It was not the send-off they were dreaming about as the French side ran in seven tries in a dominant display, but Baxter preferred to think optimistically when looking ahead to next season.

“We have got to look at the positives and we have got to move forward,” Baxter said.

“Exeter Rugby Club will still be playing next weekend against London Irish in the Premiership, we will still be turning up for the first game of next season, and we have got to get on with things without these players.

“I am going to miss these guys because they are amazing players and I count some of them as life-long friends of mine and we have done some incredible things together. We have been on a journey together for 12, 13, 14 years with some of them, but I am also looking forward to next year because I would like to start a journey with some of these other players.

“It will be amazing to watch guys like Will Becconsall, Tom Wyatt and Tom Cairns, guys who have just got into the team, and Christ Tshiunza, Daf Jenkins, it will be amazing to watch these guys lift a trophy one day, and that’s what we have got to focus on now.”

Baxter, who lost Scotland international lock Jonny Gray in the first half to a dislocated left knee, added: “For the first five or six minutes, we contained them, we showed great energy, we had good field position, we were brave and that kind of felt like it gave us some foundation in the game, but when you are playing a really good team, if you make a mistake they punish you, and I think that’s what happened.

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“This will add layers of experience to some of our young guys who have not been here that long and have not played many games for us.”

La Rochelle set up a repeat of last year’s final against Leinster in the May 20 showpiece in Dublin.

Head coach Ronan O’Gara said: “It was the perfect timing to come down here. It is important to leave a trace here but it is not always possible to win a cup every season.

“We can’t guarantee anything, but as a leader it is good to see my players living their values of respect and hard work and it is a great brotherhood in La Rochelle at the moment.”

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O’Gara also all-but confirmed the club are signing Exeter winger Nowell this summer.

He added: “I can’t confirm or deny that, but I believe Jack is looking for a holiday home in La Rochelle… but it might be just for the summer!”

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