It is 16 months ago now since Northampton’s Chris Boyd suggested Exeter needed to play with more optimism if they were to prosper in Europe, adding their power game would only take them so far. The Chiefs have not forgotten his tart advice, which made this convincing five-try riposte all the sweeter.
If it was not quite the runaway win some expected, Exeter fully deserved to reach the semi-finals of the Champions Cup for the first time and there is no question that Toulouse will have to dig deep on Saturday if they wish to feature in next month’s final. Even when they are not firing on all cylinders, Rob Baxter’s side still take a lot of stopping and to be within 160 minutes of conquering Europe is all the motivation they will ever need.
With a Premiership semi-final already banked these are increasingly heady days in the south-west and the array of match-winners at their disposal is steadily growing. On this occasion the honours were shared around in front of the watching England head coach, Eddie Jones, who will nevertheless have been reminded of the dynamic running of Sam Simmonds, the growing authority of the latter’s brother Joe at fly-half and the ability of Henry Slade and Jack Nowell to change a game in the blink of an eye.
Exeter have now gone a club record seven European games unbeaten but at least this was a genuine contest, one that reflected particularly well on the visitors’ rookie prop Manny Iyogun, thrust into a Champions’ Cup debut at loosehead with the hastily registered Alex Seville, on emergency loan from Gloucester, as back-up. The 19-year-old Iyogun did himself proud, even helping to win a couple of scrum penalties in the final quarter, and the spectre of uncontested scrums mercifully never materialised.
Exeter might have had a simpler afternoon had their lineout functioned more smoothly in the first half, with neither of Luke Cowan-Dickie’s first two throws hitting the intended target. They were suitably grateful, then, when Cowan-Dickie and his forwards nicked a scrum against the head, allowing the classy Slade to waltz his way past a string of defenders and put the alert Jack Maunder over by the posts. Simmonds, another Devonian, added the conversion to put the seal on an entirely local hit and run.
Simmonds has the best kicking ratio in the tournament this season and his 93% pre-game ratio was further bolstered by a fine angled conversion of the flanker Jacques Vermeulen’s first try, scored from close range after 25 minutes to extend the hosts’ lead to 14-3. Saints, though, were showing plenty of spirit and a driven score wide on the left for the captain, Teimana Harrison, was no less than they deserved.
Chiefs, with Ian Whitten making his 50th European appearance, needed to up the tempo and examine Northampton’s recently fragile confidence. Within two minutes of the restart they had ticked both boxes, the previously quiet Nowell scything past some limp tackling to register his side’s third try.
Another successful lineout drive produced a fourth, this time for the increasingly prolific Hill, after 54 minutes, only for Fraser Dingwall to cut a sharp line back against the grain to trim the deficit once more.
Ultimately it made little difference, the man of the match Vermeulen galloping away for a second try three minutes from the end to remind Toulouse, for all their attacking verve, that they should assume nothing in the last four. Exeter have already beaten Castres, Montpellier, Clermont Auvergne and Bordeaux-Bègles on this ground in this tournament and there remains another gear change in them.