Sport writer Owain Pryce recaps the semi-finals of the European Rugby Champions Cup, as two contrasting games set up an Anglo-French showpiece
Exeter Chiefs have reached their first Champions Cup final after a 28-18 victory against Toulouse. They will face French side Racing 92, who ended Saracens’ reign as European champions by defeating them in a tight game in Paris.
Toulouse travelled to Sandy Park in Devon to face the Chiefs after an impressive quarter-final win against Ulster. The first half saw them continue in a similar ilk, with their game dictated by livewire scrum-half Antoine Dupont. However, two early penalties from Thomas Ramos was all they were able to score in the early stages, despite having the upper hand in both possession and territory.
This was a perfect example of a well-drilled Exeter side, confident in their game plan. They were prepared to soak up the pressure and wait for the mistakes to be made, capitalising when the French side began to tire.
On the half-hour mark, a sharp backline move from the Chiefs took them within five metres of the line, where they are unmatched in their ruthlessness. No side in world rugby is more potent with the pick and drive, and their first try was scored in this way, by prop Harry Williams.
Toulouse hit back with an unconverted try, set up by a dazzling, jinking run by the box-office winger Cheslin Kolbe. Exeter responded quickly, reaching the five-metre line again before half-time. After a tap and go penalty, quickly becoming one of the hallmarks of the Chiefs’ game, Sam Simmonds powered over, with his brother and Exeter’s captain Joe Simmonds picking up his second conversion.
The second half saw the Chiefs reverse the possession and territory stats back in their favour, and with an hour on the clock, Williams picked up his second try, another score from close range. Exeter’s ability to keep their composure in this situation is unparalleled, especially in the club game.
The match was put out of reach as Joe Simmonds threw two dummies and scored under the posts, capping off a near-perfect performance for him and his side. A late Toulouse try was a mere consolation, as Exeter continue their meteoric rise in club rugby. In 1996, when Toulouse won the very first European rugby competition, Exeter were winning the Fourth Division of English rugby, captained by Rob Baxter, the man who has led the club to this year’s final as head coach.
If Exeter want to complete their fairytale, they will have to beat Racing 92, who crushed Saracens’ dreams with a spectacular winning try, set up by star man Finn Russell. This 76th-minute score came at the end of a cagey, abrasive encounter, which had only seen penalty kicks until this point.
Unlike in Dublin the week before, Saracens did not have a big lead at half time, trailing by three. It seemed that fatigue and a weaker bench would see Racing stretch their lead, but Saracens were excellent in the early stages of the second half, picking up nine points in ten minutes from the boot of Alex Goode.
A crucial moment in the game from a Saracens perspective was in the 56th minute. They had just kicked a penalty to go six points clear, when a Racing move broke down on the visitors’ 22. The ball was hacked through, and Saracens’ wing Alex Lewington raced after it, without an opposition player within 15 metres of him. Unfortunately, with rugby’s equivalent of an open goal at his mercy, Lewington was unable to gather the ball cleanly, spurning a crucial opportunity.
Racing began to wrestle back control, but with only five minutes left, and Saracens defending resolutely, they had only a Maxime Machenaud penalty to show for their second-half efforts. Trailing by three, Racing and Scotland fly-half Russell produced a moment of magic. A sumptuous chip in behind from the Scot was caught on the full by centre Virimi Vakatawa, who fended off Richard Wigglesworth and offloaded the ball back to Russell. Another pass put flying winger Juan Imhoff into space, and the Argentine dived over to score one of the great European tries.
Not only was it a great try, but it was important to a club that has been striving for European glory, but has fallen short at this elite level. Saracens deserve credit for their performance, they nearly achieved another fantastic result in difficult circumstances. However, it is the team from Paris who will meet Exeter in the final at Bristol on 17th October. With neither team ever winning European rugby’s elite club competition, it promises to be a special occasion regardless of the result.
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