Exeter Chiefs side to face Racing 92

Mark Stevens
Authored by Mark Stevens
Posted Friday, October 16, 2020 - 12:41pm

The stage is set, now is the time to deliver the prize-winning performance.

Ten years after elevating themselves into English Rugby's top tier with victory in Bristol, Rob Baxter's side will return to their neighbouring Westcountry city tomorrow for what arguably is the biggest game in the history of Exeter Rugby Club.

Months of graft, both on and off the field, will now come down to one fixture as the Chiefs tackle French rivals Racing 92 in the final of the Heineken Champions Cup.

It's a first-ever European final for the Devonians, who having overcome Glasgow Warriors, La Rochelle and Sale Sharks in the pool stages, then floored Northampton Saints and four-time winners Toulouse in the knock-out stages.

Now, the battle-ready Chiefs must overcome a star-studded Racing outfit in their quest to become the undisputed 'Kings of Europe'.

Tomorrow's tussle is the first of back-to-back final appearances for the Chiefs, who next week will line-up in a fifth successive Gallagher Premiership Final at Twickenham.

That game, however, is on the horizon and the focus for Baxter and his players is fully on this weekend and nothing more.

Indeed, when quizzed this week by the national media about the enormity of the Racing clash, Baxter – as he so often does – gave a detailed and measured response.

He said: "It is always the same isn't it? They become big games once you have got there. Obviously, we have had to win a lot of big games to get here and I still harp back to us actually winning promotion to the Premiership as one of the key, fundamental steps and it always will be.

"In a weird way, that was the thing that took us the longest to do, it certainly took us the most games, so there have been plenty along the way and every time you get to one of these landmark games that, for obvious reasons, it becomes the biggest games, doesn't it?"

Not that Baxter, nor his players for that matter, are here to make up the numbers. Past final experiences – including victory and defeat – have created a mind-set that means the Chiefs know what will be expected of them by the time they take to the field at Ashton Gate.

"What can the approach be?" said Baxter. "I think the biggest lesson I have learnt as we have gone along is that we don't want to sit here and say how amazing it is that we have got to the final of the European Cup, we can go and give it a real go and it will be brilliant and whatever happens, it will have been a brilliant season. We have gone way beyond that.

"If it looks like the guys are cool, calm and collected, it's because we feel we are getting our preparation right. We are not running around with big smiles on our faces being silly because we have got to the European Cup final for the first time, we are locking down into what it will take to win it and I think that is where we are.

"We are approaching it in a very normal way and the way I look at it is that our normal way is to go there and give it our best, we give ourselves the best chance of winning and our whole approach has to be around that.

"How do we get tactically and technically prepared? How do we get physically right? And then in the last few days, it's about how we recharge those emotional batteries to be ready to go on Saturday.

"That process is one we have been involved with over a number of years and have got better and better at it, so that approach isn't going to change.

"I'm hugely excited. I am massively excited, but I am also massively nervous... I hate the fact it is a 4.45pm kick-off! I would have loved it if it had been a 3pm kick-off, or liked it even more if it had been 1pm because that morning can take a long time to get through, but that's what sport is all about.

"The day we don't get nervous and look at each other wondering what is going to happen that day is the day we should pack it all up because what are you doing it for otherwise?

"This is what it should be all about. It should be about challenging yourselves, trying to be a bit better than you have been before and that is what makes it massively exciting for us as a club. "

Alongside the excitement, Baxter acknowledges there is also a sense of disappointment, particularly in the fact that no supporters of the club will be in place to witness his side take to the field.

"For obvious reasons, I think there is a sense of disappointment for everyone involved in the competition that we are not playing in front of supporters," added Baxter. "That would have meant playing in front of supporters in Marseille, but it would also have meant playing in front of a full house in the quarter-final against Northampton and that would have been amazing, an electric day.

"The reality is that we wouldn't have been able to play a semi-final here, or probably not play a semi-final here,

although we were told that if there was a lack of travelling support – which there may have been from Toulouse, but that's not for me to say – there may have been an opportunity to play the semi-final here, but likely not.

"It would have been somewhere here in England on our pool standing. That may well have been at Bristol, but it would have been an incredible day, so we have missed the supporters.

"As great as a result is and as great as it feels afterwards, there is a different atmosphere when there is a full house supporting you and the whole emotional wave that is there. I am not saying we will miss going to Marseille, but we miss playing in front of our supporters, of course, but that's because they are a huge part of the whole sporting environment."

Ahead of kick-off, Baxter was pleased to confirm he has a fully-fit squad to choose from tomorrow. Concerns over the likes of Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Olly Woodburn, Jonny Gray and skipper Joe Simmonds have all been allayed prior to kick-off.

Not surprisingly, the Chiefs are fully loaded for the game. Up front, Baxter sticks with an unchanged pack from that which saw off Bath 35-6 in last weekend's Premiership play-offs, whilst behind there are two changes with Ian Whitten – on his 200th Premiership and Champions Cup appearance for the club – given the nod in midfield over Ollie Devoto, while Nowell comes in on the wing for Woodburn.

15 Stuart Hogg

14 Jack Nowell

13 Henry Slade

12 Ian Whitten

11 Tom O'Flaherty

10 Joe Simmonds (capt)

9 Jack Maunder

1 Alec Hepburn

2 Luke Cowan-Dickie

3 Harry Williams

4 Jonny Gray

5 Jonny Hill

6 Dave Ewers

7 Jacques Vermeulen

8 Sam Simmonds


16 Jack Yeandle

17 Ben Moon

18 Tomas Francis

19 Sam Skinner

20 Jannes Kirsten

21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne

22 Gareth Steenson

23 Ollie Devoto



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