BRISTOL, England, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Rob Baxter has spent most of his life at Exeter, playing for fun through the years when they were a minor league club, but after overseeing a decade of remarkable progress he now finds himself as the head coach of the European champions.
Appearing in the Champions Cup final for the first time, Exeter did it the hard way, holding off relentless Racing 92 comebacks to emerge 31-27 winners on Saturday in Bristol -- fittingly the city where they earned their first promotion to the English Premiership 10 years ago.
Next week Exeter can cap an amazing season by securing the double, if they can overcome Wasps in their fifth successive Premiership final, having won only one and losing to Saracens in the other three.
Baxter, however, was in no mood to look ahead to Twickenham as he stuck to his policy of encouraging his players to enjoy a beer or two of celebration just as they did winning the fourth division title in 1996 as he captained the club for 10 years.
“I am not going to worry about the elusive double right now,” the 49-year-old told BT Sport. “We have to enjoy the moment and get in that changing room and enjoy the next few hours. We will have a blow out and then look to Wasps.”
It was an amazing match on Saturday with four tries apiece and a point in it with 15 minutes to go. Exeter then went down to 14 for the last nine minutes but held off wave after wave of attacks before escaping to put the nail in the Racing coffin with a last-minute penalty by Joe Simmonds.
“It is going to be a game I remember for a long time,” said Baxter, one of the most popular men in the game. “It is an incredible story for these guys and the club and that last 10 minutes seemed to go on forever.
“But we have seen it out and it feels like it was meant to be. We had to fight for every inch and that was massively important for us. For all the sacrifices the players have made, it feels like a fitting reward.”
Joe Simmonds, at 23, becomes the youngest captain of a European Cup-winning side and with four conversions and that nerveless penalty, took his tournament tally this season to an extraordinary 39 successes from 41 attempts.
“We’ve been hurting for the last few years, losing finals but we have come on massively as a team and it showed in that never give up attitude today,” he said.
His brother Sam was on the scoresheet again to take his tally to a tournament-leading eight for the season, remarkable for a number eight. “This is huge and I can’t wait to have a beer with the boys,” he said.
It was tough on Racing, behind from early on but who kept fighting back and must have thought the title was theirs as they pounded the depleted Exeter line in the latter stages. Instead they are runners-up for the third time in five years.
“It’s pretty hard to put into words,” said their Irish winger Simon Zebo, who scored two of their four tries. “It is something we have tried to accomplish for so long. It means a lot to this group of players and it’s heartbreaking. “We probably made a few errors but the effort and the heart was there. We really want to put the star on the jersey so we will keep trying.” (Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ken Ferris)
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