The leading French clubs may be looking threatening but Exeter are not about to relinquish their European title meekly. Even without a raucous house crowd there are no soft knockout projects in Devon and Leinster will find their hosts scenting further blood when they travel throughout the Irish Sea for next weekend’s tasty-looking quarter-final.
Not that Chiefs were remotely perfect but even with 20 minutes left there was currently no question that Lyon would be flying home empty-handed. With the England lock Jonny Hill leading the charge with a first-half brace, the protecting champs’ eventual tally of 7 shots was a more than decent return.
Rob Baxter’s side have now won their last eight succeeding home video games in this tournament and have actually not lost against French opposition in their last six meetings. Without the advantage of a correct pre-season this winter has periodically been a grind for them but the return of Hill, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie from Test task provides a sprinkling of hard-edged class which noticeably raises those around them.
Any collective rust has also now been gotten rid of and Baxter was suitably pleased at the impact of Hill and Slade, who had previously been involved in simply three club video games this season. “They simply add that bit of killer something,” said Baxter. “I think we needed a game … I ‘d anticipate us to be a minimum of 10% better next week.” With no major injuries and last October’s European final accomplishment versus Racing 92 still reasonably fresh in the memory, the Leinster video game has all the makings of a timeless.
For Lyon, however, this was a European knockout debut and they started at an appropriate gallop, romping into a 14-0 lead inside the first 10 minutes as Exeter were made to suffer for some early sloppiness. The full-back Toby Arnold was the very first recipient, avoiding past the tried take on of Alec Hepburn to send the nippy France scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud scooting over from 20 metres out.
The generally trustworthy Hepburn was likewise in the frame a couple of minutes later when a fumble permitted the visitors to regain ownership and require a lineout in the Chiefs 22. Lyon appropriately pinched the ball back once again and clever handling put the wing Xavier Mignot over in the best corner. A second well-struck conversion from the knowledgeable Jonathan Wisniewski compounded the Chiefs’ pain.
If Exeter did not already value the large target on their chests, they did now. A close-range tap charge move yielded a shot for the hulking Hill however a Wisniewski penalty broadened the space to 17-5 prior to completion of the first quarter. Offering good French sides early reason to believe is hardly ever a path to lasting European fulfilment.
By the half-hour mark, however, the momentum of the match had swung entirely. The Lyon prop Vivien Devisme was sent out to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul on his own line and within minutes Hill had barged over for his 2nd. Three minutes later on the hosts had actually collected a third, a scything diagonal burst from Olly Woodburn establishing a shot wide on the left for his fellow wing Tom O’Flaherty. Joe Simmonds nailed the difficult conversion and his ochre-shirted side were all of a sudden back in business.
Lyon’s discipline was likewise fraying, with Hepburn’s opposite number, Francisco Gómez Kodela, being punished for hair pulling. Back into the 22 went the ball and, after another prolonged duration of pressure and a more tapped charge, Ollie Devoto cruised over in between the posts for his side’s 4th try, which ensured a 26-20 half-time benefit.
To Lyon’s credit they stuck at it, only a great cover tackle from Woodburn on Pierre-Louis Barassi and a vital turnover from Cowan-Dickie avoiding the visitors from regaining the advantage. When again it seemed to poke the Chiefs into action and within a number of minutes they were back in their pleased place, pounding away on the opposition line.
This time it was the relentless Dave Ewers who crashed over, setting the tone for a last half-hour of slow-roast abuse for the visitors which produced a penalty try and a late score for the deserving Woodburn. Chiefs are not rather at their finest but in a knockout situation they stay magnificent hard to floor.