The leading French clubs may be looking ominous but Exeter are not about to relinquish their European title meekly. Even without a raucous home crowd there are no soft knockout assignments in Devon and Leinster will find their hosts scenting further blood when they travel across the Irish Sea for next weekend’s tasty-looking quarter-final.
Not that Chiefs were remotely perfect but even with 20 minutes left there was already no question that Lyon would be flying home empty-handed. With the England lock Jonny Hill leading the charge with a first-half brace, the defending champions’ eventual tally of seven tries was a more than decent return.
Rob Baxter’s side have now won their last eight successive home games in this tournament and have not lost against French opposition in their last six meetings. Without the benefit of a proper pre-season this winter has occasionally been a grind for them but the return of Hill, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie from Test duty supplies a sprinkling of hard-edged class which visibly lifts those around them.
Any collective rust has also now been banished and Baxter was suitably pleased at the impact of Hill and Slade, who had previously been involved in just three club games this season. “They just add that bit of killer something,” said Baxter. “I think we needed a game … I’d expect us to be at least 10% better next week.” With no major injuries and last October’s European final triumph against Racing 92 still relatively fresh in the memory, the Leinster game has all the makings of a classic.
For Lyon, though, this was a European knockout debut and they started at a proper gallop, romping into a 14-0 lead inside the first 10 minutes as Exeter were made to suffer for some early sloppiness. The full-back Toby Arnold was the first beneficiary, skipping past the attempted tackle of Alec Hepburn to send the nippy France scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud scooting over from 20 metres out.
The normally reliable Hepburn was also in the frame a couple of minutes later when a fumble allowed the visitors to regain possession and force a lineout in the Chiefs 22. Lyon duly pinched the ball back again and smart handling put the wing Xavier Mignot over in the right corner. A second well-struck conversion from the experienced Jonathan Wisniewski compounded the Chiefs’ pain.
If Exeter did not already appreciate the large target on their chests, they did now. A close-range tap penalty move yielded a try for the hulking Hill but a Wisniewski penalty widened the gap to 17-5 before the end of the first quarter. Giving good French sides early reason to believe is seldom a route to lasting European fulfilment.
By the half-hour mark, though, the momentum of the match had swung completely. The Lyon prop Vivien Devisme was sent to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul on his own line and within moments Hill had barged over for his second. Three minutes later the hosts had collected a third, a scything diagonal burst from Olly Woodburn setting up a try wide on the left for his fellow wing Tom O’Flaherty. Joe Simmonds nailed the difficult conversion and his ochre-shirted side were suddenly back in business.
Lyon’s discipline was also fraying, with Hepburn’s opposite number, Francisco Gómez Kodela, being penalised for hair pulling. Back into the 22 went the ball and, after another extended period of pressure and a further tapped penalty, Ollie Devoto cruised over between the posts for his side’s fourth try, which ensured a 26-20 half-time advantage.
To Lyon’s credit they stuck at it, only a fine cover tackle from Woodburn on Pierre-Louis Barassi and a crucial turnover from Cowan-Dickie preventing the visitors from recapturing the advantage. Once again it seemed to poke the Chiefs into action and within a couple of minutes they were back in their happy place, pounding away on the opposition line.
This time it was the relentless Dave Ewers who crashed over, setting the tone for a final half-hour of slow-roast torture for the visitors which produced a penalty try and a late score for the deserving Woodburn. Chiefs are not quite at their best but in a knockout situation they remain mighty hard to floor.