Munster showdown awaits Exeter after bonus-point glory
Still alive, still in with a slugger’s chance, Exeter Chiefs did all that they could to nurture their faint hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages, securing the bonuspoint win that leaves them with a straightforward task at Thomond Park on Saturday – beat Munster, denying them a bonus point in the process and they are through to the quarter-finals.
It is easy to articulate – a victory would leave them level on group points with the Irish side, but with a better pool record between the two this season – but darn difficult to bring about, given that Munster have won their past 11 European ties at that cherished backdrop and have only ever been beaten four times at home in the history of the European Cup.
It is one last shot, one last opportunity, a knockout tie in all but name. The odds are against the Chiefs, especially with two days fewer to rest and prepare, but to judge from this display, the force is back with them.
And if the likes of Jack Nowell, playing his first game in two months due to a hamstring injury, shows the fire and devilment he did against the Top 14 champions, then anything is possible. Good news for England on that front, too. The 25-year-old set the tone with his busy, bouncing carries right from the first whistle, beating men and creating tempo, a live-wire presence, a trigger to Chiefs’ multi-faceted attack. And to think that he had come into the match with a tight hamstring.
There was menace and trickery all over the field from the Chiefs, be it the energy of prop Alec Hepburn, the roaming instincts of lock Jonny Hill or the magician’s offloading of centre Ollie Devoto, all of which contributed to Exeter’s impressive win against a Castres team who fought back after a slack opening with some snarling, defiant play of their own.
The French side made their opponents fight for the goodies on offer, even if their feistiness did spill over into a 59th-minute red card for replacement prop Tudor Stroe for a swinging arm to the head of Devoto in a ruck.
It is all Exeter wanted – a crack at redemption, an opportunity to show that they can transfer the clout and class they show on the domestic stage to the bigger, more challenging and more significant cross-border arena.
“We have been waiting for this game to come and we have given ourselves what we wanted – something to play for in the last match,” said Exeter Chiefs’ director of rugby, Rob Baxter.
“We can genuinely talk this week about going and testing ourselves in one of Europe’s iconic venues against one of Europe’s iconic teams, in as close to a knockout as we could get.
“We have got to make sure we are emotionally recharged for Thomond Park. We have to try to make the game about us and not about Munster.”
But, he added: “The scheduling [the difference in turnaround times] is strange. It needs looking at. “You’d think they would have worked out a better way, but we won’t dwell on it.
“As for Jack, playing at 15 gave him more freedom to attack, to get his hands on the ball. It doesn’t matter what number is on his back. We might keep him there.”
The victory gave much-needed credibility to the cause of the English clubs, too, who were fighting a virtual wipe-out before the final round had been played.
That said, it is still likely that, for the second year in succession, Saracens will be the lone standard bearer for the Premiership in the knockout phases. Exeter, at least, have raged against the dying light.
There was certainly no need to hold a referendum in Devon about staying in Europe, every man, woman and child was right behind their push to remain in the Champions Cup. However, for a club of their pedigree, Europe has been a disappointment for the Chiefs with only one quarter-final appearance (2016) in five attempts.
This was a day to try to redraft that ledger and Nowell was a real asset. He was in the thick of the action, weaving and stepping his way to the try-line in the third minute from 45 metres out.
Fly-half Joe Simmonds was next to score, the beneficiary of wonderful sleight of hand from Devoto. Then lock-forward Hill stretched over for the third on the half-hour with Nowell again featuring.
Exeter were well aware that they needed to keep that momentum going in the second half and not allow Castres easy scores as they had done when conceding a firsthalf try to Taylor Paris.
The appearance of fiery scrumhalf Rory Kockott did bring more bite to Castres’ play, yielding a try for Thomas Combezou, but Chiefs were more than equal to it all.
Wing Tom O’flaherty scored the all-important bonus-point try just four minutes into the second half, with Henry Slade and Luke Cowandickie also touching down.
Exeter know that they will need all the cleverness and enthusiasm they brought to this encounter if they are to prevail this weekend. It may be mission improbable in Munster, but the Chiefs are still in the ball game.
Jubilant scenes: Tom O’flaherty celebrates with Jack Nowell after scoring Exeter’s bonus-point try