Rob Baxter has brought Exeter Chiefs up from the depths of the Championship, back into the top tier and reached the summit in winning the 2016/17 Aviva Premiership. However, as the champions of England prepare to enter the European Champions Cup pool of death by facing Glasgow Warriors at Sandy Park on Saturday evening, the question we are all asking is can Baxter’s boys take over Europe?
Pool 3 of this year’s Champions Cup sees the Chiefs line up against the experience and might of Leinster, the spending and recruitment power of Montpellier and the only unbeaten side to this point of the season in the Northern Hemisphere, Glasgow.
Can Baxter’s Boys take over Europe?
There were many that thought that Baxter’s men from the South West of England were merely looking after the Premiership for Saracens after they had been focussing on winning a second consecutive Champions Cup and that Sarries would not let that happen again this year. Yet, whatever the circumstances, the Chiefs are indeed the English Champions and some would argue that last year there was little to choose between the two teams anyway.
So from here it will be interesting to see whether the Chiefs swagger into European rugby’s premier tournament or whether they still have a slight nagging doubt that they’ve pinched a vacant seat at the top table of a celebrity wedding.
Their league form and the way they have gone about defending their title would suggest that they not only have the belief that they won the league fair and square last year but that they can repeat the feat and more this season. After their first day blip against a buoyant Gloucester at Kingsholm, they haven’t put a foot wrong and both they and Saracens have risen once again to their familiar places at the top of the Premiership going into the European break.
Strongest Group in the Competition
Their first task though is to exit probably the strongest group in the competition with some suggesting that due to its competitive nature, teams will take points off each other, meaning it is unlikely there will be a second place finisher that will qualify.
That means that 3 of the continent’s top sides will miss out on the knockout stages. This demonstrates the brutality of the tournament and why only the cream rise to the top each year.
Montpellier’s size and talent would frighten most teams with guys in their engine room weighing over 120 kgs at 2m plus and an eight, nine, ten axis that most clubs would die for with Louis Picamoles, Ruan Pienaar & Aaron Cruden bossing things in the centre of the field.
The Form Irish Side
Leinster traditionally peak for this tournament and have the history and the pedigree to challenge year after year. They are also, along with Ulster, the form Irish side going into the competition and coming off the back of a confidence inspiring win over old rivals Munster last weekend.
But Glasgow boast the best record coming into the tournament. They have made Scotsdun a fortress and it will not be a trip the French, in particular, will enjoy taking. They may be seen as the weakest of the four in this group but they could well create an upset along the way.
So how will Exeter approach their task? What is clear is that the Chiefs thrive on adversity. They will take on the star-studded line up of Montpellier with the same mentality they have against the likes of Wasps & Saracens on the domestic scene. With Don Armand and Sam Simmonds leading the way up front and Gareth Steenson and Henry Slade guiding things from behind, they will be formidable opponents for anyone.
What’s for sure is that the victor from this pool may just be favourites to take the overall prize in Bilbao in May.
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