Exeter Chiefs suffered a hammering at home to Clermont Auvergne, with the visitors converting five tries for an 8-35 win against the Devon side who have failed to perform to the dizzy heights of last season.
This match saw a slight change in the Chiefs’ starting line-up from the team that drew with Gloucester. After a poor performance against Gloucester Henry Slade dropped to the bench for the first time this season, allowing Sam Hill to partner Ollie Devoto in midfield. With Will Chudley suffering a knock last week, Dave Lewis started at scrum half, with 19 year old Jack Maunder providing back up. Changes up front include props Moray Low and Harry Williams starting, Damien Welch getting the nod in front of Mitch Lees, and Kai Horstmann replacing Dave Dennis on the blindside.
Strangely, the Devon side are in a pool five with two of their opponents in last season’s Champions Cup, Clermont Auvergne and Bordeaux-Begles, in addition to Irish side Ulster. At home in 2015 the Chiefs shocked the current Top 14 leaders 31-14 and squeezed into the knock out stages, profiting from a Morgan Parra error in the final group game. Unfortunately after only 40 minutes that win was a distant memory.
The Chiefs opened the scoring with a Gareth Steenson penalty after seven minutes for a high tackle by Sebastien Vahaamahina on flanker Julian Salvi as he looked to break the defensive line. This was sadly their only points of the first half. Despite seeming to have the stronger scrum and lineout, the Devon team failed to convert any opportunities in a dominant first quarter before their opponents hit their stride.
Clermont took their first opportunity whilst Luke Cowan-Dickie was limping in defence after making two brutal tackles on the visitors. Breaking the Chiefs’ line winger Noa Nakaitaci put Julien Bardy over in the corner. Parra kicked the conversion to give the French side a 3-7 lead after 24 minutes.
With Cowan-Dickie off and Jack Yeandle on, Exeter were missing the physicality the England hooker had added to the game. Clermont quickly struck again. Camille Lopez was the first to react to a tricky high ball and Nakaitaci chalked up a score of his own, Parra’s boot adding the extras.
The Chiefs needed to strike back before the game was taken out of reach but failed to do so. They thought they had crossed the whitewash after Ian Whitten touched down after a David Strettle clearance was charged down. However, Whitten was deemed to be in front of the kicker and Clermont were awarded a penalty.
After three straight lineout wins against the head for the home side there was hope when Julian Salvi broke free to the opposition 22, but he was unable to find Thomas Waldrom on his shoulder and Clermont were able to clear. Having withstood this pressure the French side got a third try just before the halftime whistle blew. Slick hands on the right wing beat three defenders, allowing French international Wesley Fofana to glide past Olly Woodburn to score and the take a 3-21 lead into the locker room.
The bonus point try and final nail in the Chiefs’ coffin came only 3 minutes into the second half. Another slick handling move sent England qualified Nick Abendanon in under the posts, with Parra’s conversion all but confirming a five point haul.
The misery for Devonian fans was not yet over though. Despite Lewis, Yeandle, Waldrom and many others showering the Clermont line with multiple close range attacks, the visitors’ successfully defended, both legally and illegally. Referee George Clancy eventually sent lock Flip Van der Merwe to the sin-bin for persistently infringing but even during this ten minutes the home team were unable to put any points on their rivals.
Once the lock returned to the scene Clermont did not take long to add their fifth to totally bury Exeter. A blocked Devoto kick was hacked through. Woodburn managed to touchdown ahead of Abendanon but this merely delayed the score. From the resulting scrum the replacement scrum half Ludovic Radosavljevic sent Fofana over for a brace.
Despite having no chance of securing a losing bonus point the Chiefs never gave up and in the final minute they eventually gave their supporters something to cheer about when Slade sent Sam Hill over in the corner. Unfortunately he failed to add the extras for a final score of 8-35.
This desperate performance means that the Exeter Chiefs a far behind in what could be construed as the group of death. They will need to vastly improve for their trip to Pro 12 leaders Ulster at the weekend. Head coach Rob Baxter did not hold back in his post-match comments, “I’ve said to the lads that the response I am expecting is a little bit of anger.” Like the fans, he was very disappointed in his team’s performance. “Today feels a bit of a low to me, really, because I don’t think that was a level of performance that is anything like we can achieve or have achieved in the past. I am not saying the boys are not working hard, but there were a lot of errors in there, and our Achilles’ heel this season of conceding some soft points out of very innocuous situations reared its head again tonight.” Hopefully the Chiefs will come out fighting next Saturday.