Exeter win it the hard way to fulfil Tony Rowe’s Europe ambition | Robert Kitson

Exeter win it the hard way to fulfil Tony Rowe’s Europe ambition | Robert Kitson

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nce upon a time in the west there was a team who made their region proud. What a shame there were no supporters in the ground to witness the ultimate moment in Exeter’s 149-year history but there was no silencing the Devonian roars at the final whistle. A grey day in Bristol was suddenly replaced by a haze of purple euphoria and pure relief.

Goodness, though, this was tense. A flawed classic, perhaps, but a 14-man Exeter had to win it the hard way. Having led 28-17 thanks to a priceless interception score finished by the ever-classy Henry Slade, the loss of Tomas Francis to the sin-bin for a fingertip knock-on close to his own line set up a final act of pure agony.

Racing, who had clearly not read the pre-game paeans to the Chiefs’ superior fitness, have now lost three European finals and this will be the toughest of the lot to take.

For a moment there were clear echoes of the Saracens v Exeter Premiership final last year, with Chiefs suddenly in danger of losing a game they had been winning comfortably. Even after Joe Simmonds’ final-minute penalty it was not clear that Exeter were safe, the referee, Nigel Owens, unsure if there was sufficient time left to restart. From Penzance to Paignton, the south-west held its breath before Racing’s fate was finally confirmed.

What a story Exeter’s rise has been. It is a mere four years since Tony Rowe told this correspondent: “Our ambition is to be the best in England and, eventually, the best in Europe but we’re in no hurry.”

The club’s chairman, along with the Baxter family, has long since become accustomed to the Chiefs exceeding everyone’s expectations but no one could have predicted the Champions Cup would materialise just a decade on from their promotion play-off success up the road at the Memorial Stadium.

Maybe the stars were always in alignment. Aside from one trip to La Rochelle, Exeter had to travel no further than Salford and Glasgow on their European odyssey. All three of their knockout games were played in the south-west of England, while the Covid‑19 scare that disrupted Racing’s buildup did their opponents no favours.

Then again sport is littered with teams who had a golden opportunity and failed to take it. The great thing about Exeter – and here it was writ large again – is their ability to stay in the fight mentally and physically and believe that, collectively, nothing is beyond them. Their loosehead prop Alec Hepburn, a powerlifter in his youth, sums it up perfectly: “I saw a quote from a Chinese weightlifter a long time ago. He said it didn’t take him 12 years of physical training to attain a world record, it took him 12 years to convince himself he could do it.”

In Exeter’s case it has taken double that. When the European Cup started in 1995-96 they were in the fourth tier of English league rugby, light years from the Premiership never mind the summit of Europe. Now, with next Saturday’s Premiership final already in the diary, there is no reason to imagine they will not be back. The average age of this starting Chiefs lineup is 26, both their half-backs are 23 and their best players are contracted for the foreseeable future.

When they watch the tape back the Chiefs will clutch their heads at the way they almost let the biggest prize slip but Devon’s finest will not be remotely bothered about accusations their finest hour lacked for beauty. As Rob Baxter frequently says: “If you want to talk about what you see when we are at one end of the field, make sure you add to it how we get there. Open your eyes and actually see. If you really want to decide how we play look outside that five metres.”

It is also true that Exeter never, ever give up, even when the odds are stacked against them. Without an outstanding tackle by Ollie Devoto on Virimi Vakatawa, Racing would have been ahead entering the final quarter, the balance of power suddenly tipping in their favour. The end game was as suspenseful beneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge as any recent European finale but the emotions experienced by the Chiefs in the closing seconds will last a lifetime.