Exeter Chiefs face Racing 92 in the 2020 Champions Cup final at Ashton Gate in Bristol on Saturday (4.45pm kick off)
By Michael Cantillon @mike_cantillon
Last Updated: 15/10/20 3:22pm
We take a look at the talking points ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup final between Exeter Chiefs and Racing 92 in Bristol…
Close-range grunt vs backline sparkle
As was the case with Exeter’s semi-final against Toulouse, their meeting with Racing 92 is fascinating for a number of reasons – not least because the sides have never faced off before.
Added to that, is the clear contrast in playing styles between the two respective groups, and how that might play out at Ashton Gate.
While both sides, and all their many talents, are compelling to watch, they are so in different ways. The Chiefs have long been famed for their pragmatic approach. A set-piece dominated focus of accuracy, control and structure.
Racing, although sound at set-piece aspects of the sport too, are synonymous with more of a running game. One of pace, offloading, chip kicks and a lack of structure.
Yet, Racing’s hefty forward pack and the likes of Camille Chat, Eddy Ben Arous, Bernard Le Roux, Wenceslas Lauret and Antonie Claassen may well still be able to impose their power on Exeter’s tight phase-play.
While the Chiefs’ supremely-talented backs in Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell, Tom O’Flaherty and Henry Slade would be able to mix it in Racing’s broken-field phases.
Whichever side can mitigate each other’s talents and strengths, while thriving on their own, should take victory. But how that plays out is extremely hard to call.
Indeed, Racing have scored more tries (11) in the 20 minutes leading up to half-time this season than anyone else, while Exeter have scored the most in the 20-minute period directly after the break (12).
The Parisian outfit have scored more tries (seven) from kick returns and counter-attacking than any other side, while the Chiefs have scored seven tries following close-range, quick-tap penalties – no other club has notched more than two.
No club’s players have beaten more defenders in Europe this year than Racing (229), while no club has enjoyed more lineout success than Exeter (101).
Both possess supremely accurate goal-kickers. Exeter out-half and skipper Joe Simmonds has the best success rate of any player to attempt more than five kicks at goal (94 per cent – 34/36). Racing scrum-half Teddy Iribaren has been metronomic with the boot from all angles too – landing more penalties than anybody else (15).
Exeter’s top tryscorer – and leading tryscorer in the Champions Cup this season – is, predictably, a forward: No 8 Sam Simmonds crossing seven times, while Racing’s is wing Teddy Thomas, who has scored six. Racing out-half Finn Russell leads the way for try assists (seven).
Nobody in the competition has made more clean breaks than Racing – indeed they hold the top three spots: centre Virimi Vakatawa (16), wing Juan Imhoff (15), wing Thomas (15). By contrast, Exeter have three of the top four tacklers this season: back-row Dave Ewers (118), second-row Jonny Gray (113), back-row Jacques Vermeulen (90).
The stats paint a picture, and demonstrably so. One side favours open, attacking play, and the other prefers to mix it in the tight.
If Racing cut loose, not many can live with them, while if Exeter get within an opposition 22, they are almost impossible to halt – as Bath most recently experienced in brutal fashion last weekend.
A final ingrained in difference, but laced with quality, it is sure to be an engrossing contest.
Home advantage…of sorts?
Were this 2020 Champions Cup final to have taken place on its original date back in May, the Chiefs would have been travelling to France to face Racing 92 at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome.
Instead, Exeter will make the short hop to Ashton Gate – as near to a home European Cup final as the club will ever get.
But what denotes home advantage in any case? Is it familiarity, reduced travel, the comforts of routine? If these are the main factors, then the Chiefs, you would imagine, have an advantage.
Yet, so much of what makes playing at home significant is the increased crowd support and atmosphere – factors which, in these Covid-19 times, will be lacking.
Over the last 10 years since promotion, for each and every next step or big occasion – be it Premiership games, Premiership semi-finals, Premiership finals, European pool and knockout contests, a European semi-final – Rob Baxter has consistently said the biggest game in the club’s history remains their Championship play-off fixture a decade ago to get into the Premiership.
Finally this week, he wavered slightly, conceding that a European Cup final is “probably” the biggest game in the club’s history, “now that we are here”, before then immediately referencing their promotion-winning game again.
That day back in May 2010 saw Exeter take huge strides on the domestic front. The city it was achieved in? Bristol. A 29-10 victory over Bristol at the Memorial Stadium in front of a crowd 11,550.
Having achieved at the home of Bristol Rovers Football Club, they now look to become the kings of Europe at the home of Bristol City Football Club.
Irony? Baxter prefers to call it “fate”.
History to be made
Regardless of the result in Saturday’s final, history will be made, as neither Exeter nor Racing 92 have won a European trophy before.
Not since 2013 has there been a final between two sides never to have won the European Cup – on that day French duo Toulon and Clermont faced off in Dublin. Before that, one must go back as far as 2006 and Munster’s meeting with Biarritz.
While Racing have reached this stage twice before, however, finishing as losing finalists in 2016 and 2018, Exeter really are entering into unexplored territory.
In fact, this season was the first time the Chiefs had made it past the quarter-finals in only their second knockout appearance. The club were then successful in their maiden European Cup semi-final vs Toulouse.
New champions of the European Cup is something that has not happened with regularity. In fact, it has only twice this decade (Saracens in 2016, Toulon in 2013).
Just 11 club sides have earned the right to be labelled European champions – four of whom in Bath, Ulster, Brive and Northampton, have done so just once.
If Exeter can go all the way, it will be a remarkable achievement and not least because of where the Chiefs have come from in such a short space of time.
The Chiefs had never experienced top-flight rugby until 2010 and 20 years ago – around the time Northampton won their European Cup title – they finished ninth in the third tier, below the Met Police.
They shared a stadium with local speedway team Exeter Falcons up until 15 years ago, and as recently as 2008 or so the Chiefs were playing in front of less than 500 people.
They transitioned from Championship wanderers to a bona fide Premiership force, having now made the last five Premiership finals in a row.
Over the same timeframe for the past four seasons, there have been four clubs involved in the business end of the European Cup more than any others.
Three of those have been Saracens, Leinster and Munster – a trio who hold nine European triumphs between them. The fourth has been Racing 92.
The Parisians suffered final defeats to Saracens in Lyon (2016) and to Leinster in Bilbao (2018) in recent seasons, with the second of those finals seeing Racing lead four times before losing in the final minutes.
During the 2018/19 season, Racing stormed through the pool stages to finish as No 2 seeds and set up a home quarter-final with Toulouse, only to lose to their Top 14 counterparts.
Year-on-year, Racing have felt in touching distance of glory, only to fall short. Might this be the year they lift silverware?