Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro reviews the semi-final action from rugby’s European competitions.
Last weekend’s European semi-finals saw the finalists decided in both the Heineken Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup. There will be South-West representation in both finals, as Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears beat Toulouse and Bordeaux-Begles respectively to secure their maiden appearances in a European final. Exeter’s opponents will be Racing 92 after they ended the Saracens era of dominance in a tight and tense semi-final, with Bristol taking on former French Galactico’s Toulon in the Challenge Cup.
Champions Cup Wrap:
Complete Display as Chiefs Secure Date with Destiny
Exeter Chiefs reached their first ever European final at the expense of four-time champions Toulouse, after a 28-18 victory at Sandy Park that oozed class and quality. Considering the emptiness of the stadium, Sandy Park was as partisan as it could be, with all those allowed into the ground as members of the Chiefs matchday group cheering their side on from the sideline.
Toulouse started magnificently, harrying the Chiefs defence and drawing two penalties that fullback Thomas Ramos duly converted for a 6-0 lead. Chiefs responded though, with their power in the tight resulting in a try for Harry Williams, following an impressive Tom O’Flaherty break. Toulouse responded though through Alban Placines after a stunning team effort that showed their free-flowing attacking nature in all its glory. Again, Chiefs responded though, Sam Simmonds scoring on the stroke of half-time for a 14-11 lead. The second-half saw Chiefs finally assert a degree of control over the game, Harry Williams going over for his second score and a 21-11 lead. On 70 minutes, victory was assured as fly-half Joe Simmonds waltzed through the Toulouse defence for a well-taken individual score. Toulouse responded with a final score of their own but by that point, the result was secured.
This result highlighted just how far Exeter have come as a club. When Toulouse won their first European title in 1996, Exeter were securing promotion from the fourth tier of English rugby. With top spot and a home semi-final secured for Rob Baxter’s men, the dream of a domestic and European double is well and truly on.
End of an Era for Saracens Thanks to Moment of Russell Genius
Exeter’s opponents in the Champions Cup final will be Racing 92 after the French side edged past Saracens 19-15, to end their opponents hopes of retaining their European title before relegation to the Championship. Racing’s victory ensures that there will be a new name on the European trophy but for the duration of a cagey affair, it looked like the Saracens juggernaut would have one final outing. With both teams struggling to maintain any sort of control over the game and try-scoring opportunities few and far between, Racing enjoyed the better of the first half, edging into a 9-6 lead thanks to the boot of Teddy Iribaren. After the break, the caginess continued, before Saracens began to assert some dominance around the breakdown, Alex Goode kicking them into a 15-12 lead with five minutes remaining. The game was settled though thanks to a moment of magic from Racing’s Scottish fly-half Finn Russell. With the Saracens rush defence rapidly approaching, his delicate and inch-perfect chip saw Virimi Vakatawa collect the ball and burst through, feeding Juan Imhoff to dive in out wide. A shell-shocked Saracens had little time to respond as Racing wound the clock down to secure their place at Ashton Gate against the Chiefs.
The result signalled an end of an era for the disgraced English and European Champions, with club stalwarts Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Richard Wigglesworth all playing what turned out to be their final European fixture for the club. It remains to be seen if this was also their final swansong in a Saracens shirt, much depending on whether Mark McCall allows them one last runout in either of their remaining two Premiership fixtures.
Challenge Cup Wrap:
Extra-Time Victory for Bristol in European Classic
Bristol Bears and Bordeaux Begles served up a European classic as the Bears secured their first ever European final with a 37-20 extra-time victory. After 80 minutes, neither side could be separated with the scores tied at 20-20, before the Bears greater fitness levels saw them through the additional 20 minutes.
Bordeaux started at a ferocious speed, with a try and two penalties from young fly-half Matthieu Jalibert seeing them take a 13-0 lead at Ashton Gate. It took Bristol until three minutes before the interval to finally get on the scoreboard, Semi Radrada feeding Steven Luatua to run in out wide after and arching run that left the defence on its heels. Bristol hit the front in the 50th minute after a Max Malins score. The fullback, on loan from Saracens raced onto a deft kick through from Harry Randall to give the Bears a 14-13 advantage. Following two Callum Sheedy penalties that extended the Bristol lead to 7, Bordeaux responded through replacement hooker Joseph Dweba, levelling the match at 20 apiece. Close to fulltime, Bordeaux’s number 8 Marco Tauleigne left the field injured and having used all their substitutes, the French side faced the prospect of extra-time with 14 men. Bristol dominated the extra-time period with two tries in the first five minutes. First a delightful Max Malins offload set Piers O’Conor free down the wing, before Malins scored his second of the night, following a pass from Radrada, to all but seal the win. Bordeaux were unable to respond, with the Bears controlling the rest of the match to secure victory.
Toulon Tame Lacklustre Tigers
Bristol will face three-time European Champions Toulon in the Challenge Cup final following the French side’s 34-19 victory over a disappointing Leicester Tigers. Gone are the stellar names of yesteryear for Toulon, replaced instead with a host of younger French players and foreign players who have cut their teeth on other European shores. Standout names for the side still included current French captain Charles Ollivon and Italian legend Sergio Parisse. After an early penalty, Leicester barely fired a shot in the early exchanges, with converted tries from former Worcester Warrior Bryce Heem and Gabin Villiere giving the hosts a 20-6 advantage on a terrible pitch. Leicester responded just before halftime, as Fijian powerhouse Nemani Nadolo bludgeoned his way over from close range to reduce the deficit to 20-11. In the second half, Leicester had the better of the early exchanges, a George Ford penalty reducing the gap to 6 points, before Ford inexplicably turned down 3 points to kick for touch. His kick went dead and that seemed to kill the Tigers momentum. Facundo Isa scored the hosts’ third, to effectively kill them game as a contest, before Villiere scored his second. With 7 minutes left, Tigers wing Harry Potter dotted down from close range but by that point, the match was long gone.
A quite remarkable stat is that all four sides in this year’s European finals were plying their trade in the second division of their respective national league pyramids in 2005, showing how quickly the landscape at the top table of European rugby can change. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 situation, the original finals venue of Marseille will host the 2021 finals, rather than this season’s showpiece games. As a result, Exeter Chiefs will face Racing 92 at Ashton Gate Bristol on Saturday 17th October, with Bristol Bears taking on Toulon at Stade Maurice David the evening before.