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'We had a team of Welsh officials who got so much abuse...'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by PA)

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With Montpellier due at Sandy Park this Saturday in the latest opening round to a Champions Cup campaign, long-serving Exeter boss Rob Baxter has been reflecting on his club’s rich history of featuring in Europe ever since their 2010 promotion to the Premiership got them qualified to take part. Exeter went on to rule the continent, memorably defeating Racing in the 2019/20 decider that was held in Bristol. That was in the Champions Cup, the tournament they have participated in on eight occasions. 

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However, their three seasons in the second-tier Challenge Cup have never been forgotten about, Baxter especially vividly remembering their first-ever away game, an October 2010 trip to Bourgoin, the French outfit who were then Top 14 regulars but who have since fallen on hard times.  

Exeter came away from that maiden voyage with a 34-19 win, a success that Baxter speaks as highly of now as he does about any of his team’s excellent successes since then in the Champions Cup.  

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“That first trip to Bourgoin probably opened everybody’s eyes – all the coaches, all the players, everybody – because when you walk out onto the field and you are walking through a tunnel, a metal tunnel, because of the things that get thrown at you by the French crowd.

“You kind of go, ‘Right’ and you kind of realise that this is going to be different. And to be fair, we played really well. We actually had a team of Welsh officials who got so much abuse all through the game – they got more abuse than we did, do you know what I mean? But they kind of stood there and they officiated the game and we won, and we had an amazing night, ironically, with all the French supporters and it was brilliant.

“Those are things that can really energise you as a side about what you want to be involved in… you don’t forget those memories. We have had an opportunity to do very well in it in the past and we have got to use those experiences to drive us onto something special this year because if we get to the level we know we can play at, we know we can be very competitive against everybody.”

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Exeter also defeated La Rochelle and Toulouse in their title-winning season, adding the scalp of Lyon last term to further highlight how they have got the knack of defeating French opposition at this level, so what is the secret to success, coach Baxter?   

“Any time you play a French team, you have just got to halt that momentum that then allows an off-load and someone getting their hands free and then the second bit of momentum and that kind of feeling that everything is going to stick. That is the thing you have got to try to knock down as quickly as you can. When you do that, then that is when you start to see the error count start and frustration start to rise.

“So, the 80-minute game plan is relatively simple, it’s just fitting all the bits and pieces around your lineout defence, your structures, your attack structures and how you keep the ball against them that create that overall picture. We are relatively comfortable with the overall picture we need to create against French teams and that is why we are really looking forward to it.”

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