There will be a new name on the Champions Cup this season and, on this evidence, Exeter will take some knocking from the podium. As Toulouse can testify after this pulsating semi-final there is a steely purpose about the Chiefs that belies their supposed inexperience at this level and a multi-talented Racing 92 side will find themselves up against opponents who suddenly believe anything is possible.
Not unlike Munster in their heyday, there was simply no holding the supposedly unfashionable local heroes from the deep south west and, by the final quarter, the four-times European champions Toulouse were like boxers who had taken too many blows to the ribs. The Chiefs, by contrast, were still pounding the rock, hungry to add to their four-try haul. “Big games of rugby are like boxing matches,” said Rob Baxter, Exeter’s proud director of rugby. “At some stage the guy who can’t get his hands up any more gets knocked out.”
On a beautiful sunny afternoon, with only a gentle breeze fluttering the flags, the relentless Exeter forwards were indeed the true stars, with Harry Williams scoring a brace of tries and the Simmonds family contributing the rest of their points. Number eight Sam, a deserved man of the match, and his younger brother Joe are a fast-maturing double act and the whole of Europe now know the standards of which they are capable.
Plenty of mental resilience was also required after a tricky first quarter when Toulouse eased into a 6-0 lead from two penalties from Thomas Ramos. Exeter needed something to settle their nerves but Toulouse initially found more favour with the Irish referee Andrew Brace. Only some strong cover defence in the left corner denied a flying Yoann Huget and a small battalion of tacklers were required to subdue the buzzing Cheslin Kolbe, Toulouse’s most lethal attacking weapon.
No European semi-final, however, is supposed to be easy. The good news from Exeter’s perspective was that their defence around the fringes was knocking back even Toulouse’s biggest men, giving the rest of the team a visible confidence boost. With 10 minutes of the first-half to play the breakthrough duly materialised, Tom O’Flaherty slicing his way into the Toulouse 22 and Williams eventually burrowing unstoppably over near the posts.
Toulouse had also lost their towering lock Rory Arnold prematurely but they hit back within five minutes, the dancing Kolbe helping to capitalise on turnover ball and stretch the defence enough to allow Arnold’s replacement Alban Placines to stride over unopposed in the left corner. It looked likely to send the visitors into the interval with a slender advantage, only for Chiefs to respond with the last play of the half. Henry Slade and Jack Nowell combined nicely down the right and, with a bit of momentum established, Luke Cowan-Dickie tapped and went from a penalty in front of the Toulouse posts. This time the gambit worked and Sam Simmonds was on hand to wriggle over from close range for the 66th try scored by an Exeter forward this season.
With the opposition pack containing the 37-year-old Jerome Kaino and 36-year-old Joe Tekori, Exeter were hoping the last 40 minutes would prove no country for old men. This was only Toulouse’s fourth game since March and their bench was not quite as star-studded as it once was. Against that the Chiefs were now playing against the breeze and Toulouse had previously conceded fewer than 20 second half points in the entire tournament.
It was a time for a few warriors to step up. Defensively Jonny Hill was everywhere and the entire front-row were putting in a prodigious amount of work. And then, thrillingly, up popped Stuart Hogg, surging into the Toulouse half and feeding an unmarked Jack Maunder on his right. A classic try looked on the cards, only for the scrum-half to slip at the crucial moment. Luckily it did not matter, an increasingly furious series of close-range drives eventually yielding another try for the powerful Williams. Simmonds’ magnificent faded conversion was the icing on the gateau.
The sight of the younger Simmonds scampering away for his 70th minute try was another moment to make Teignmouth proud and Matthius Lebel’s consolation score mattered not. The only pity was that no supporters were allowed in to watch. Had there been a crowd present it would have been among the most charged atmospheres in the Chiefs’ history, the roars audible from Topsham to Torbay. Next month’s final at Ashton Gate could yet feel even sweeter.