Exeter’s success has been based as much on their ability to defend their line as the capacity to score from 10 metres out. The key to a victory that keeps the Champions Cup in England came four minutes from the end when, defending a one-point lead with a player in the sin-bin, they held out as Racing camped on their line and ended the siege when a replacement, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, won a penalty on his line to clinch one of the more enterprising European finals.
Pressure penetrates even the experienced. Teddy Iribaren, one of Racing’s survivors from the 2017 final defeat to Leinster, will struggle to avoid replaying the first 11 minutes in his mind in the weeks to come. There are prime rules to observe against Exeter, two of which are not to mess around in your own half and take every opportunity to exert pressure.
The game was a minute old when Racing won the first penalty of the match 40 metres out. They opted to kick for touch rather than go for goal, but found themselves defending a scrum on the same spot after Iribaren’s kick went straight out of play without threatening the touchline.
Six minutes later, despite Racing stealing two of Luke Cowan-Dickie’s throws, they found themselves defending a lineout eight metres from their own line having conceded three penalties. There was an inevitability about Jonny Gray’s catch, the subsequent drive and the storming of the line when Cowan-Dickie was in possession.
Racing’s preparation for the final had been disrupted by a Covid outbreak at the club that forced the players to stay at home. They seemed to have spent it in solitary confinement such was their apparent lack of readiness for opponents who thrive off penalties they win through relentless pressure and convert them into tries, usually through their forwards as happened here when their three first-half scores all followed infringements.
Exeter’s second try followed Iribaren’s second and third unforced errors which prompted Racing to order their replacement scrum-half, Maxine Machenaud, to warm up, although the change was not made until the start of the second period. The first mistake was a reckless pass to Juan Imhoff inside Racing’s 22 after he fielded Joe Simmonds’s kick. The scrum-half was off balance but, instead of kicking the ball into touch, he attempted an ambitious pass that left Imhoff scrambling on the ground and, under pressure and isolated, he conceded a penalty.
Racing held up the resulting lineout drive and were awarded a scrum, but they were immediately defending again when Iribaren’s pass was too high and quick for his half-back partner, Finn Russell, who dropped the ball and was fortunate that Jonny Hill knocked on in the act of scoring.
Another penalty later and Exeter scored their second try, Sam Simmonds forcing his way over after Cowan-Dickie’s quick take. The Chiefs were 14-0 ahead and playing the game on their terms. Their one flaw, apart from early lineout blemishes, was in defence when Racing widened the point of attack through Russell and Virimi Vakatawa. Racing got back into the game when Russell’s swift, flat pass to Simon Zebo caught out Tom O’Flaherty and gave the full-back a free 25-metre run to the line.
Russell and Zebo combined nine minutes from the interval to set up the ruck from which Imhoff dummied over and Exeter’s lead was a mere two points. Racing were finishing the half the stronger until Russell’s kick hear halfway was charged down, Jack Nowell hacked on and the Chiefs were awarded a penalty. Another lineout and another try for a forward, this time the prop Harry Williams.
The second half began with a flurry of tries. Zebo scored the first after Racing’s driving lineout had been repelled and Russell’s pass again split the defence, but when the outside-half launched an attack outside his 22 with an ambitious pass, it fell to ground and was picked up by Nowell who passed inside to Henry Slade.
Racing felt Slade should have been off the field, if only for 10 minutes, after he was penalised for a high tackle on Imhoff following the wing’s interception of Nowell’s pass. But the referee, Nigel Owens, ruled the centre had initially made contact with the shoulder before his arm rode up and into the head.
Racing harnessed their frustration and, by now winning penalties at the breakdown, forced an attacking lineout. The drive was repelled but the hooker Camille Chat broke off to run on a powerful diagonal and take two backs over the line with him.
There were 31 minutes to go and the difference between the sides was two conversions. Racing’s two previous finals, against Saracens and Leinster, had not produced a try but the eight shared here was already a record for the tournament’s showpiece and with Russell not cowed by mistakes and finding a better foil in the facilitating Machenaud, more appeared likely.
The only further score was a Machenaud penalty as Exeter, down to 14 men for the final nine minutes after Tomas Francis was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on, defended their line with grim determination. Racing took play through 19 phases, finding no cracks whether they went narrow or wide, and the siege ended when Hidalgo-Clyne forced a penalty out of Antonie Claassen after the No 8 had been held up short of the line.
It was Racing’s last gasp. Exeter went upfield and won another penalty which, 14 seconds from time, Joe Simmonds kicked from 45 metres to conclude another chapter in the remarkable tale of a club that 10 years ago Racing would have known nothing about. They do now.