Heineken Champions Cup: Last swansong for homegrown Exeter talent?

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Jack Nowell
Exeter captain Jack Nowell and number eight Sam Simmonds will leave the club this summer after spending their senior careers at Sandy Park
Venue: Matmut Atlantique, Bordeaux Date: Sunday, 30 April Kick-off: 15:00 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app

A heavyweight Anglo-French battle for a place in the final of the Heineken Champions Cup. Exeter Chiefs have been here before.

The Premiership underdogs overcame five-time winners Toulouse in the semi-final three years ago.

A month later, at a vacant Ashton Gate under Covid-19 restrictions, they were crowned European champions for the first time.

It was a champagne moment for the Devonians, built on the back of young homegrown talent.

England’s Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade have all gone on to become international stars, but their foundations were laid in the Chiefs’ academy.

Rob Baxter fondly recalls his side “fighting for every inch” against Toulouse’s array of world-class talent.

“I remember that Toulouse game – and what was incredible about it – was in many ways it’s still one of the best-ever performances I’ve seen from an Exeter Chiefs side,” said Baxter.

“It had everything, it had them throwing everything at us with world class players and then us breaking them on our own bodies. The lads just stood there and literally fought for every inch.

“We refused to concede a try, I think we conceded a couple of penalties early in the first half, but we got through a tough patch by working extremely hard and then at the end of the first half, we started to take charge with a couple of tries.

“We started to expand on that in the second half and it really was one of those special occasions and that’s what we have to work on when we face La Rochelle on Sunday, just because we will need a similar level of performance to overcome them.”

‘They are still here for the moment’

Fast forward to 2023, and Exeter are on the cusp of reaching another continental final after an impressive extra-time round of 16 win over Montpellier and a quarter-final victory against Stormers.

Unlike three years ago when Baxter’s side also claimed the Premiership title in an emphatic double, Exeter have been inconsistent domestically and holders La Rochelle will be favourites in Bordeaux.

But the reduction in the Premiership salary cap to £5m will see many of Exeter’s biggest household names seek pastures new after this season, and the Sandy Park outfit will be aiming for one final swansong in the biggest competition of them all.

Club stalwarts Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds are joining Montpellier, while captain Jack Nowell is set to move to La Rochelle.

Internationals Stuart Hogg, Ian Whitten and Ben Moon are all retiring while players such as Dave Ewers, Harry Williams, Jack Maunder and Joe Simmonds – who graduated from the academy alongside his brother Sam before leading the side to European glory as captain in 2020 – are also departing.

However, Baxter wants to focus on the here and now, and that starts with La Rochelle on Sunday.

“The narrative of this second half of the season has been all about those players who are leaving,” said Baxter.

“But what people forget are they are still here at the moment.

“Sam Simmonds is still here, Joe Simmonds is still here, Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell, Dave Ewers, Jannes Kirsten, they are all still here and playing.

“They have not gone and they are still capable of getting on the pitch and playing like international quality players. That’s got to be the job and this week is all about bringing that together.

“We have still got very good players staying with us. Olly Woodburn has been our player of the season, Henry Slade, Scott Sio, Jonny Gray, guys like that, they are still here and will be on that pitch.

“People sometimes forget we still have a great group of players who, if they all come together, they all see it as one, it’s going to be a very good game of rugby.”

Exeter will want to keep the journey going, and victory over La Rochelle would book a final against Leinster or Toulouse in Dublin next month.


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