Exeter Chiefs hammered Montpellier 41-10 to keep their European hopes alive, scoring five second-half tries to take them above the visitors into second place in Pool 3 of the Champions Cup.
Before the game, Head Coach Rob Baxter had stated Exeter would “fight for everything until it’s gone”. The Devon side had sat third in Pool 3, nine points behind leaders Leinster and four behind their French opponents – only two wins from their final two games would keep their European hopes alive.
The Premiership-leaders came into the game having tripped up against Newcastle. Baxter responded by bringing in a whole new front row of Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams, whilst the returning Jonny Hill locked down alongside Mitch Lees in the second-row. In the backs, Henry Slade came in at outside centre, and Australian Lachie Turner started ahead of Phil Dollman at full-back.
The first ten minutes were a cagey affair. Montpellier gained the better of the early exchanges, taking the kick-off well and settling with ball in hand before working their way into Chiefs’ territory. Exeter responded from a scrum on their 22, driving Montpellier back to win a penalty, but like the French side they couldn’t capitalise on their advantage as both packs found their feet.
The French side were content to play at a leisurely pace, ambling from set-piece to set-piece an relying on the trickery of scrum-half Gela Aprasidze to create a spark, and some space, for the outside-backs. Relying on their forward power nearly dividends – at a lineout on the Exeter 22, captain Louis Picamoles broke free from the maul before being hauled down by the Exeter scramble defence just short of the line.
“The french side were content to play at an ambling pace”
Exeter finally found some territorial respite in the 18th minute when number-eight Sam Simmonds won a penalty at the breakdown on halfway. Gareth Steenson kicked to the corner, and after initially failing to make any headway, the Chiefs kept the visitors pinned to their try-line. The home side squeezed a scrum from the Montpellier maul and looked set to finally get off the mark as a series of drives by the forwards took them up to the whitewash. Jonny Hill bundled over the try-line but failed to control his grounding, a big hit from Springbok Bismarck du Plessis dislodging the ball as the second-row powered over, to the displeasure of the Exeter coaching staff.
Baxter and co. didn’t despair for long, however, as the opening score finally arrived just before the half-hour. A big run by second-row Mitch Lees through a gap in midfield brought the Chiefs into the 22. The ball was recycled and loose-head Ben Moon, Simmonds, and blindside-flanker Don Armand took the Chiefs to within five metres of the try-line before the men-in-pink made amends for their earlier inaccuracy. Ewers drove over with the support of his forwards to claim the opening score on the 27th minute, Steenson added a comfortable conversion, and the Chiefs led 7-0.
Former Chiefs player Nemani Nandolo was providing an excellent physical threat for the visitors, putting them on the front foot from first-phase ball, but Montpellier struggled to take advantage of his good work. One such carry nearly led to a reply for Montpellier as a grubber kick across the line was nullified by winger Olly Woodburn under pressure, but this was as close as the visitors came in the first period.
As it was, Exeter nearly added to their try in fortuitous circumstances. A long clearing kick downfield by the Chiefs was chased well by Lachie Turner, and the full-back smothered winger Gabriel Ngandebe’s kick. The ball bounced favourably for the Australian who claimed it at pace, dancing along the touchline before diving unopposed to the delight of the home fans. Unfortunately their joy was short-lived, as referee Nigel Owens consulted the TMO, revealing Turner’s foot was narrowly in touch.
The last chance of the half fell to Montpellier. With Aprasidze marshalling his pack, Montpellier went through the phases to get within 3 metres of the try-line, and a creaking Chiefs defence looked certain to break despite the laborious manner of the attack. Picamoles’ frustration at the lack of speed saw him dive off his feet at a breakdown to speed it up. Owens penalised the number-eight, and that brought the half to a close.
The Chiefs began the second-half brightly. A neat move saw Slade, Sam Hill and Ian Whitten combined on the right to make a half break. The chance came to nothing as Whitten’s ambitious offload from tight to the touchline drifted forward, and although the ball was dotted down, play was brought back by referee Nigel Owens for the infringement to dampen the encouraging start.
“a bright start to the second half”
On 50 minutes, Bismarck du Plessis won turnover ball on halfway to give Montpellier a platform. Their good forward drive took them into the Chiefs 22, but the men in pink held firm, choking the French pack to claim the turnover. Despite the ability in the Montpellier back-line – alongside Nadolo, Henry Immelman looked threatening running back kick-receipt ball, and World Cup winner Aaron Cruden stood at outside-half – the visitors persisted in keeping it tight, and it was Exeter who were showing the greater adventure of the two teams.
Eventually, Cruden did get an opportunity to show his skills, dancing his way past an inside shoulder to release Picamoles. The French side earned a penalty from Hill lying offside, and Cruden rejected the kick at goal in swirling conditions to put Montpellier five metres out. From the line-out, a solid drive went to ground, and the Chiefs were penalised for their use of hands. This time, Cruden slotted the three points from just to the left of the posts and secure the visitors’ first points on 52 minutes.
From here on in it was all Exeter. The Chiefs responded by claiming the restart, Sam Hill exploiting the space in the French side’s backline to nearly go over with support outside, but the home side didn’t panic. The forwards taking over and Sam Simmonds went over the top of a ruck, stretching over to claim the easily-converted score by the base of the left post.
Shortly afterwards, scrum-half Nic White produced a lovely behind-the-back pass to send slade away Slade, and the England man was pulled down on the line. Montpellier did well to hold up the powerful Lees over the try-line, but there was little they could do from the resulting scrum on 58 minutes.
White picked up from a solid set-piece, sending a ball behind the back of Hill to Steenson. The Irishman’s loose pass forced Woodburn to check his run, but the winger produced a wonderful acrobatical finish in the corner to finish off the move. Steenson failed to land the extras from wide on the left touch-line, but at 19-3 with over a quarter still to play, Exeter could turn their attention to gaining the bonus-point.
The game nearly ended as a contest just after the hour. A loose clearing kick by Montpellier gifted Exeter territory in the French side’s 22, and despite replacement Matt Kvesic wriggling over the line, after a long look from the TMO the try was disallowed.
With fifteen minutes to play the Chiefs did get their bonus-point. From a scrum in front of the Montpellier posts, White employed the same wrap-around ball that rewarded them earlier. Despite another poor pass from Steenson, Woodburn produced an even better soaring finish than his first under pressure from Joe Tomane and Immelman. This time, the TMO could find no reason to chalk off the score, and Steenson added a glorious fade to his conversion to secure the extras – Exeter led 26-3.
“the chiefs were ruthless”
Four minutes later White grabbed Exeter’s fifth. Simmonds broke from the base of a scrum of halfway to almost score an incredible try himself. Instead, his run set up a solid set of phases, and Montpellier’s passive defence was eventually exploited as White saw a gap to the left of a ruck, dotting down on the blindside. Steenson couldn’t convert, but at 31-3 the Chiefs fans were in raptures.
Montpellier’s heart was clearly gone by this point – having seemed so evenly poised at half-time, it was an utterly one-sided affair in the second. The Chiefs took the opportunity to empty their bench and with six minutes to play Don Armand claimed Exeter’s sixth try following good work by the forwards from the back of a solid scrum.
With three minutes to play, Montpellier had their first sniff since Cruden’s penalty, making their way from deep up to the Exeter line. A glorious cross-field dink by New-Zealander Cruden was claimed by Nadolo, and the Fijian winger twisted mid-air to claim and ground the ball. Cruden nailed the conversion from far on the left with a minute to play and bring Montpellier in to double figures.
Exeter still had time to rubber-stamp the victory as replacement Joe Simmonds sent a penalty over with time up and cap what could be a season-defining 41-10 victory for the Chiefs.
Rob Baxter, Exeter Chiefs Head Coach: “We were very, very good today; tactically, emotionally, we got it right. It was a tough game for a long period.”
“The game went away from [Montpellier] because we played very well. We turned up and performed individually and collectively very well – the outcome sorted itself out.”
“We’ve got to move on from this one very quickly. We’ve given ourselves a fantastic opportunity next week. It’ll be a big challenge against a full-on Glasgow side.”
Venue: Sandy Park
Date: Saturday, 13 December, 2018
Kick-off: 15:15 GMT
Exeter (7) 41
Tries: Ewers, Simmonds, Woodburn 2, White, Armand Cons: Steenson 3, J Simmonds Pens: J Simmonds
Montpellier (0) 10
Tries: Nadolo Cons: Cruden Pens: Cruden
Exeter Chiefs: Lachie Turner; Ian Whitten, Henry Slade, Sam Hill, Olly Woodburn; Gareth Steenson © (J Simmonds 69’), Nic White (Chudley 69’); Ben Moon (Hepburn 54’), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Yeandle X’), Harry Williams (Francis 65’); Mitch Lees, Jonny Hill; Dave Ewers, Don Armand, Sam Simmonds (Salmon 69’)
Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Alec Hepburn, Tomas Francis, Toby Slamon, Matt Kvesic; Will Chudley, Joe Simmonds, Phil Dollman
Montpellier: Henry Immelman; Gabiel Ngandebe, Francois Steyn (Mogg 69’), Jan Serfontein (Tomane 60’), Nemani Nadolo; Aaron Cruden, Gela Aprasidze; Mikeil Nariashvili (Fichten 45’), Bismarck du Plessis, Johannes Jonker (Haouas 40’); Nico van Rensburg, Konstantin Mikautadze (Delannoy 62’); Julien Bardy, Yacouba Camara (Galletier 57’), Louis Picamoles ©
Replacements: Romain Ruffenach, Gregory Fichten, Mohamed Haouas, Julien Delannoy, Kelian Galletier; Jesse Mogg, Joe Tomane, Benjamin Fall
Referee: Nigel Owens
Man of the Match: Olly Woodburn
Attendance: 11, 427