Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Sam Skinner help Exeter Chiefs beat Racing 92 in Heineken Champions Cup final
Exeter were crowned kings of European club rugby for the first time after a thrilling 31-27 Heineken Champions Cup final victory over Racing 92.
It was a moment to savour for Chiefs who had Scottish quartet Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne in their ranks.
They have conquered Europe in only their 10th season as a top-flight team, ultimately flooring the French heavyweights at Ashton Gate through a combination of irresistible forward power and ruthless finishing.
But a gripping game saw the teams trade blow after blow, with eight touchdowns in total before Exeter prevailed through scores by hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, number eight Sam Simmonds, prop Harry Williams and centre Henry Slade, with captain Joe Simmonds kicking four conversions and a lasp-gasp penalty after prop Tomas Francis had been sin-binned.
There was even a pause before the final whistle following Simmonds’ penalty, as officials checked whether there was any time left to still be played, but referee Nigel Owens blew and Exeter could celebrate.
With Scotland stand-off Finn Russell pulling the strings, Ireland international full-back Simon Zebo touched down twice for Racing, while wing Juan Imhoff and hooker Camille Chat also crossed, with Maxime Machenaud adding a penalty and conversion and Russell one conversion.
It means Exeter will complete a domestic and European double – a feat achieved by only three other English clubs – if they beat Wasps in next Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership title showdown.
While Racing suffered a third European final defeat in five years, Exeter marked their debut appearance by lighting up the tournament’s showpiece occasion.
It might have all unfolded behind closed doors – 337 days after a competition severely delayed by coronavirus had started – but there was a box-office quality about the Chiefs as Devon’s finest lapped up every glorious minute, even if a chunk of the second period saw them under prolonged pressure.
Exeter made one change following their semi-final victory over Toulouse, with flanker Jacques Vermeulen replacing Skinner, while Racing showed three switches as wing Louis Dupichot, centre Henry Chavancy and lock Bernard Le Roux all started.
The final, which would have been in Marseille five months ago had it not been for the pandemic, burst into life with an eighth-minute try for Exeter – in trademark style, as they drove the Racing pack backwards from a short-range lineout and England international Cowan-Dickie touched down.
Simmonds kicked the conversion and Exeter immediately returned to Racing’s 22, only for the French club to enjoy a major let-off.
Fly-half Russell spilled possession behind his own line and knocked it forward as he tried to retrieve the ball, but Chiefs lock Jonny Hill could not apply downward pressure and Racing escaped after a marginal call by Owens and his television match official went in their favour.
Exeter, though, added a second try just two minutes later, again after their forwards established dominance, and Sam Simmonds claimed his eighth touchdown in this season’s tournament with his brother Joe converting.
But just when Exeter looked in complete control, Racing hit back by scoring two tries in 11 minutes.
Ireland international Zebo claimed the first when he collected Russell’s pinpoint floated pass, then Imhoff showcased his renowned finishing quality to add a second that Russell converted.
Racing were right back in the contest and Exeter needed to reassert themselves. Unsurprisingly, their forwards again came up trumps. The French side were once more powerless to stop drive after drive and this time it was Williams who prospered, with Joe Simmonds’ conversion making it 21-12 at half-time.
But Racing struck first in the second period, taking less than three minutes before Zebo arrowed over for another score and became only the fourth player to score two tries in a Heineken final.
It was a wake-up call for Exeter, yet they replied rapidly after wing Jack Nowell intercepted Russell’s ambitious pass 20 metres from his own line and found a supporting Slade, who scored and Joe Simmonds converted.
Back came Racing with a close-range score by Chat – Machenaud converted – and the game entered its final quarter with 52 points and eight tries scored.
A Machenaud penalty made it a one-point game with 15 minutes left, then Francis was yellow-carded, Joe Simmonds struck his clinching penalty and Exeter prevailed following an anxious wait before the whistle.
A delighted Joe Simmonds said: “It hasn’t sunk in. It has been a whole squad effort, and we have been hurting for the last few years losing finals.
“When that final whistle went, the emotion from everyone, I was welling up a bit, and to have my brother beside me was massive.”
Simmonds’ brother Sam added: “It’s absolutely massive. It doesn’t matter that there are no fans here, this group is incredible. It is amazing, and I can’t believe it.
“I think the fans will feel a lot of pride. To win this and have a chance at the double is huge, and everyone involved in the club is ecstatic.
“For now, we can enjoy this and won’t look towards the game at Twickenham until Monday. This is a huge achievement for the club, and I can’t wait to have a beer with the boys.”
Racing’s two-try star Zebo said: “It is pretty hard to put into words.
“This is something we have tried to accomplish for so long. It means a lot for this group of players, so it is heartbreaking.”
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