Exeter boss Rob Baxter was left to reflect on “an incredible finale” after his team secured an unlikely place in this season’s European Champions Cup quarter-finals.
The Chiefs’ 33-17 bonus point victory over Ospreys at Sandy Park saw them through on points difference after both teams and French challengers Bordeaux-Begles all finished level in Pool Two.
The three-way tie on 16 points was separated under tournament rules by results of games between the three clubs, with Exeter and Bordeaux, who were surprise 37-28 conquerors of Clermont Auvergne yesterday, then still tied, which meant points difference being utilised and ultimately working in Chiefs’ favour.
Exe ran in five tries – two each from outstanding wing James Short and number eight Thomas Waldrom, plus a Don Armand touchdown – to triumph, with Gareth Steenson adding three conversions and Will Hooley one.
Debut Champions Cup quarter-finalists Exeter will be joined in the last eight by Saracens, Leicester, Racing 92, Wasps, Toulon, Stade Francais and Northampton. The Ospreys, though, crashed out after scoring an early Hanno Dirksen try and claiming a late penalty try, while Dan Biggar kicked seven points, and Wales’ wait for a top-flight European quarter-finalist – they last achieved it in 2012 – goes on.
Baxter said: “I am obviously delighted, but delighted more for the players than anything else. “Qualifying out of this pool today was very unlikely. We talked about the character we wanted to show and what we wanted to take out of the game. We didn’t expect to be winning the pool, but the players put in a fantastic shift and got a real tangible reward for it.
“We knew the score was staying pretty close between Clermont and Bordeaux, and it all started getting really confusing. We didn’t know if we needed to kick the ball off the pitch at the end or score another try. It has been an incredible finale to the weekend. It is always nice when hard work gets rewarded, and I think that is what we have seen.”
Exeter will now visit Wasps at the last-eight stage in early April, and Baxter added: “We don’t need to worry about Europe now. It’s a long way away, and that is fantastic because it gives us a chance to thicken out our squad with players returning from injury. We will enjoy it tonight, and then it is back to business with the Aviva Premiership.”
Meanwhile, Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill is delighted to have home advantage when his side meet Stade Francais again in the European Champions Cup. Stade claimed a 36-21 bonus point win at home to Tigers, setting up a knockout-stage clash in April.
“We’ll be happy to be at home because historically that gives you the best chance of going further and we’ll have a warm welcome for them,” Cockerill said. “It will be a great occasion.”
Defending European Cup champions Toulon may be looking at quitting France for the English Premiership but their most pressing concern is avoiding an exit from Europe this weekend.
The mega-rich French giants, whose controversial owner Mourad Boudjellal said he wants his team to play in the English top flight, travel to Bath today in their final Pool 5 game on top of the table with a one-point lead over Wasps.
With only the five group winners guaranteed places in the quarterfinals, Toulon can’t afford to slip up at Bath despite the English team playing only for pride with no chance of making the knockout rounds.
Wasps would have wrapped up Pool 5 had they won in France last week and Toulon’s South African back-row forward Duane Vermeulen admitted his team-mates need to be more clinical.
“We had a lot of opportunities against Wasps but didn’t take them. We were struggling inside the opponents’ 22 and want to improve. But there is confidence in the squad,” said Vermeulen.
Top spot in Pool 2 is also still up for grabs with Welsh side Ospreys leading last year’s runners-up Clermont by two points.
Ospreys go to Exeter buoyed by a stunning 21-13 win over Clermont last week, overturning a sevenpoint half-time deficit in the process. Clermont face fellow Top 14 side Bordeaux.
The remaining three pools have already been wrapped up with Saracens clinching Pool 1, Racing 92 claiming Pool 3 while Leicester are guaranteed top spot in Pool 4. Northampton, second in Pool 3 on 14 points, go to Wales to meet the Scarlets who have the secondworst record of the 20 teams in the tournament.
Stade Francais also have 14 points in second spot in Pool 4, a massive nine behind the Tigers who they host in Paris. French champions Stade lost 26-13 at Munster last week.
Eddie Jones was at England Rugby’s Twickenham headquarters on Wednesday to announce his first squad since becoming the Red Rose’s first foreign coach in November.
His 33-strong Elite Player Squad contains seven uncapped players in Sam Hill, Josh Beaumont, Jack Clifford, Elliot Daly, Ollie Devoto, Paul Hill and Maro Itoje.
While there are a number of notable big-name omissions such as Tom Youngs, Tom Wood, Geoff Parling and Danny Cipriani as Jones looks to move forward ahead of England’s disastrous World Cup exit last year.
FULL ENGLAND SQUAD:
Backs: Mike Brown (Harlequins), Alex Goode (Saracens), Chris Ashton (Saracens), Jack Nowell (Exeter), Anthony Watson (Bath), Marland Yarde (Harlequins), Elliot Daly (Wasps), Ollie Devoto (Bath) (injury replacement for Manu Tuilagi, Leicester), Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Sam Hill (Exeter) (injury replacement for Henry Slade, Exeter) Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath), Danny Care (Harlequins), Ben Youngs (Leicester)
Forwards: Dan Cole (Leicester), Paul Hill (Northampton), Matt Mullan (Wasps), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Henry Thomas (Bath) (injury replacement for Kieran Brookes, Northampton), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Luke Cowan Dickie (Exeter), Jamie George (Saracens), Dylan Hartley, Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Kruis (Saracens), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Josh Beaumont (Sale), Jack Clifford (Harlequins), James Haskell (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Matt Kvesic (Gloucester) (injury replacement for Dave Ewers, Exeter), Billy Vunipola (Saracens)