In Round 3 of the Champions Cup group stages, the Exeter Chiefs pulled off a dominating second half performance to stun French powerhouse Clermont Auvergne 31-14 at a raucous Sandy Park. In what will go down as one of the biggest evenings in the club’s history, an inspired team led by Thomas Waldrom and Jack Nowell shone brighter than French stars such as Morgan Parra, Aurélien Rougerie, Camille Lopez and All Black Hosea Gear.
The hosts were forced into a late switch as Inside Centre Sam Hill was forced to miss out due to a tight hamstring, meaning Nowell came into the centres with Olly Woodburn taking his place on the wing. The elements would play their part at the ever-blustery Sandy Park as Will Chudley’s early box-kick failed to make any significant ground, falling into the hands of former France talisman Rougerie who carried strongly back into the Exeter 22. A subsequent scrum would provide fly half Camille Lopez with the opportunity to play Gear in under the posts, the former All Black breaking the attempted tackle with relative ease.
With 20 minutes on the clock, the visitors would strike again. Gareth Steenson had responded with a simple penalty but Noa Nakaitaci’s perfectly weighted chip over the top would bounce into the grateful arms of Rougerie to leave the scores at 14-3 in the visitors’ favour.
The scoreline did not reflect the pattern of the game. The Chiefs were looking dangerous and making inroads into the Clermont half but small mistakes and errors were preventing any momentum being generated. Waldrom and Damian Welch were in fine form, carrying hard and showing real physicality. Nowell, with Eddie Jones looking on from the stands, was unstoppable, providing electric momentum in attack while also working hard at the breakdown.
The Chiefs would be rewarded for their endeavour just before half time. Fantastic runs from Nowell and James Short brought the hosts into the opposition 22 before consistent phase play, consistently getting over the gain line, enabled Waldrom to burrow over, much to the delight of the home support. At half time, the Chiefs were 14-10 behind.
Kicking off with the wind behind them in the second half, Woodburn made a remarkable catch to bring the hosts within five metres of the Auvergne try line. Nowell and Short again combined to bring the hosts even closer before Waldrom finished a pick and go over the Auvergne line. Steenson’s conversion was accurate and the Chiefs were now up by 3. For Waldrom, that was his fifth try in two games.
The Chiefs were now well in the ascendancy as Clermont would never really threaten the hosts’ 22 for much of the second half. Only some extremely questionable refereeing from John Lacey would enable the visitors a sniff at further points. The Chiefs were consistently penalised for not releasing in the tackle despite the opposition player neither being on their feet, nor in the ruck legally. Rob Baxter and his coaching crew were clearly, and understandably, frustrated by these calls.
However this would not stop the Exeter juggernaut. Clermont blindside flanker Peceli Yato was sin-binned for a high tackle on replacement scrum half Dave Lewis as the pressure began to tell on the visitors. Inexplicably, a monumental scrum from the Chiefs front row with the try line beckoning was reset by referee Lacey but from the following set-piece, Don Armand would find his way over and the Chiefs were now well on their way to victory with the score at 24-14.
Clermont would attempt to maul their way over the Chiefs line but twice the hosts stood resolute and nullified the danger. Waldrom and captain Jack Yeandle departed the field to standing ovations and duly, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ was announced as man of the match. Nowell provided the Chiefs with a bonus-point try opportunity, winning a turnover and darting into the Clermont 22. Mitch Lees, an ever-present all game, continued the trend of powering over via the pick and go to finish off an immense performance. Steenson’s conversion meant the final score was 33-14.
Baxter spoke afterwards of the importance of getting out of the group before adjudging this game to be a momentous occasion in the club’s history. While the need to get out of the group is of course imperative, this night will live long in the memory of Chiefs fans. The Chiefs have become a force to be reckoned with in spite of key players such as Henry Slade, Dave Ewers and Luke Cowan-Dickie missing from the squad. Eddie Jones will no doubt have been as impressed by the Chiefs as any other fan, coach or player have been this season.