For the last few season pundits and fans alike have been scratching their heads as to why Exeter Chiefs failed to perform in the Champions Cup. Given their domestic prowess, a big European season appeared an inevitability.
However, is it this inward and outward pressure that is causing them to stumble in Europe? This season Chiefs enter the competition in indifferent form but with a more favourable Pool than previous years.
Could this year finally be their year to go deep in the competition? If so what are the keys to their success? David Challis assesses their chances in this year’s competition.
Established Star Players a Chiefs quality
A familiar trait of Chiefs is that their overall quality is greater than the sum of their parts. Normally this is a good thing but some have argued that their lack of star power is what is holding them back on the biggest stage.
This can no longer be seen as the case though. The arrival of Stuart Hogg signaled an intent from Exeter that we have not seen before. Add to this the return of World Cup stars Henry Slade and Jack Nowell who are now genuinely established on the world stage.
Rob Baxter was quick to point out that “they had some important game minutes last week” and they should be ready to go against La Rochelle.
If Exeter can get these star men firing in the biggest games that could be the difference between another agonizing exit and a long campaign in Europe.
Rob Baxter – Calm but Confident
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Looking at Exeter’s start to the season some coaches would panic coming into this week. Not Baxter though. Although he admits the start has not been ideal he suspects that subconsciously the players have been targeting Europe.
“the players have been looking at this week to get themselves right”
Baxter thinks that “some of our slightly disjointed performances in the Premiership might be a prelude to this”. He also backs his side to “throw a special performance into the mix”.
Less pressure this Year
This year the spotlight appears to be slightly more away from Exeter. Given the controversy surrounding Saracens and Chiefs slow start to the Premiership, they have managed to slip in somewhat under the radar.
The players also appear calmer this season. In previous years the message from Chiefs has been one of a need to perform in Europe. However, this time Sam Simmonds and Ian Whitten spoke of not looking “too far ahead” and taking it “one game at a time”.
This attitude combined with other circumstances could be the perfect storm for Chiefs to make a run at this year’s competition.
Sitting in a more favourable Pool
This is not meant as any disrespect to Sale, Glasgow and La Rochelle. However, when they are compared to previous opponents such as Munster, Leinster, and Montpellier, Chiefs appear to be a favourable position.
This is not to deny the quality of any of the above teams but in terms of European pedigree, one would probably have to say that Chiefs are the most established alongside Glasgow. The big difference being the Exeter just signed Glasgow’s best player, Stuart Hogg.
Back-to-Back wins are Crucial
Exeter has always been able to put in big performances in Europe. Look no further than games against Munster, Ospreys and Montpellier. However, the result either side of a big Exeter European performance is invariably a disappointing loss.
Sam Simmons pointed out that his side needs to “really try and get back to back wins”. When they have played well, they “never really backed them up with another good performance”. If Chiefs can buck this trend then the knockouts beckon for Rob Baxter’s side.
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) November 14, 2019
Europe as the Final Frontier
Exeter Chiefs need to perform in the Champions Cup to be considered one of the genuinely big sides. All the cards seem to be aligning for them to do just that this year. After a slow start, the Champions Cup could just what they need. This is something that Baxter also believes when he said their game against La Rochelle could be;
“a catalyst to really let ourselves go and let ourselves be the team I know we can be”
The Exeter Chiefs compete in Pool 2 in the 2019/20 Heineken Champions Cup.
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