Montpellier ‘win’ can galvanise Exeter to European semi-final

Exeter are hoping to reach the Heineken Champions Cup last four for the first time since winning the competition in 2020

Last weekend saw one of the most remarkable fixtures in European Champions Cup history when Exeter Chiefs faced off against Montpellier in what was an exhausting encounter for both sides. 

The scores were tied in normal time thanks to an 85th-minute penalty kick from Montpellier’s number 10, Paulo Garbisi.

After nearly two hours of lung-bursting rugby, Jack Yeandle burrowed over in the last play of the game to earn a win for the ages.

The scores were level at the final whistle but Exeter advanced due to the number of tries they had scored.

Rob Baxter’s men will do it all again on Saturday when they play the DHL Stormers in the quarter-final of the tournament at Sandy Park.

Baxter was delighted with the response of his side after being dealt with comfortably against Bath the week before in the Gallagher Premiership.

He said: “We showed so much more resilience compared to the week before, it was scary. When there’s emotion there you can make quite big changes and I think we did that very well.”

Exeter only needed to draw the game to advance to the quarter-finals as they had scored more tries than Montpellier.

Baxter was faced with the tactical conundrum of whether to tell the players about this leading into extra time. To begin with, he only decided to tell Jack Nowell and Henry Slade about the try countback rule so his side didn’t play overly cautiously thinking that just a draw would be good enough for the win.

“I’m not sure if you can make a good or bad decision on it,” admitted Baxter.

“I quickly said to just Nowellsy (Jack Nowell) and Sladey (Henry Slade) that we don’t need to be panicking to win the scoreboard if we’re ahead on try count.

"Initially I was concerned that we might just try to hang on and manage the 20 minutes. We got back in the coaching area and said we probably need to the whole team to know because you don’t want someone panicking trying to make something happen if all he has to do is kick the ball off the pitch.

“At half-time, we made sure the message went on to the whole team. It was a difficult one because we didn’t want to manage our way to the end of the game. We wanted to go out and attack and win it but at the same time, you don’t want them panicking.”

On the Stormers - who defeated Harlequins last week - Baxter gave credit to this Saturday’s opponents but is confident his side can get the win and challenge for the title.

“Obviously they’re a good side. They’re very confident, aren’t they? They’re playing well and buoyed by some success last year [winning the United Rugby Championship].

"You can tell that they are a team that play together and play for each other and that makes them a really dangerous opponents.

"We’re 80 minutes away from a semi-final and then we’re 80 minutes away from a final. It’s going to be a fantastic challenge for us, but Montpellier put a hell of a challenge for us last weekend and we came through it. We’ve got to trust that it will bring out the best in us.”

Sandy Park will be the venue for this weekend’s quarter-final and Baxter commended the atmosphere during last Sunday’s match and hopes that home advantage will play a large role again this week.

He said: “One of the best things about being at Sandy Park when we first got to the Premiership was the atmosphere in the stadium and it didn’t require us to win but it just required us to play well and do the best we could.

“We’re just trying to remind everyone of that because I think that after our period of success, it feels like the world is collapsing when we lose and it’s just okay when we win.

“I actually thought at the weekend the vibe in the stadium changed that a bit. At the end of the day, we didn’t even win on the scoreboard. We drew and got through on try countback. There’s far too much press talk that has been quite negative about us for quite a while and we have to make sure we work hard to change that narrative.”

This week, Exeter announced three new signings, including the acquisition of Joe Hawkins, the highly-promising centre who has occupied Wales’ 12 jersey for the last six months.

He joins Christ Tshiunza, Dafydd Jenkins, Dan John and Oli Burrows as the latest Welshman to make the move over the bridge to play his club rugby for the Chiefs.

This does however bring Hawkins’ eligibility for Wales in the future into question.

He does not have the 25 Welsh caps required to allow him to play club rugby outside of Wales and still be eligible for international selection.

Despite this, Baxter still expects Hawkins to be selected for Wales “if selected as an eligible Wales player.”

He said: “We haven’t signed him on the expectation that he won’t play for Wales. I haven’t got the expectation that he’ll be here (during international tournaments). I expect him to play for Wales.

“I’m really pleased to see how he’s developed. At the age he is, I’d like to think he’s a player who might be here for a long time. We want him to keep playing for us and become a core player in a group that can achieve some success together.”

England centre, Henry Slade is hoping to replicate last weekend’s successes this week with a win over the Stormers

“It’s going to be a hell of an occasion and a hell of an atmosphere. We had a great crowd at the weekend (versus Montpellier). They were so loud when (Jack) Yeandle went over.

“Hopefully we can have a repeat of that and get the place pumping again because it was unbelievable to play in.”