BRISTOL, England (Reuters) - Ten years after climbing out of the Championship, Exeter Chiefs were crowned kings of Europe 90 miles from home on Saturday when they beat Racing 92 31-27 in a superb Champions Cup final in Bristol full of tries and amazing defensive intensity.
Playing in the showpiece match for the first time, Exeter were always ahead after scoring early tries but Racing, desperate to avoid a third final defeat, kept battling back and made it a one-point game going into the final 10 minutes, when Exeter were reduced to 14.
The English side held out though in a heroic goalline defence that will go down in club folklore, before flyhalf Joe Simmonds slotted a last-minute penalty to settle it.
It is an amazing success story for Exeter, who have gradually built themselves into a major force and who can complete a double when they face Wasps in next week’s English Premiership final.
At 23, Simmonds became the youngest man to captain a team to victory in the continent’s premier competition. “It still hasn’t sunk in, this has been a whole squad effort,” he told BT Sport.
“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.”
Exeter drew first blood in their usual way with a catch and drive from a lineout that sent Luke Cowan-Dickie over in the eighth minute and scored a similar try through number eight Sam Simmonds after 15.
Racing hit back when Finn Russell sent Simon Zebo over in the corner before Argentine wing Juan Imhoff, whose late try secured their semi-final victory over Saracens, slipped through for his side’s second try.
Exeter, however, cashed in on another error to gain territory and, after repeated assaults, almost inevitably rumbled over via Harry Williams to send them in 21-12 ahead at the break.
Racing hit back quickly when Zebo finished well for his second try, but the high-risk side of Russell’s approach was exposed when Exeter’s Jack Nowell intercepted a risky lofted pass deep in his own half and sent Henry Slade over to make it 28-17.
Yet again though Racing fought back as powerhouse hooker Camille Chat forced his way over and a Maxime Machenaud penalty cut the lead to a point with 15 minutes remaining.
Exeter then suffered what could have been a fatal blow when replacement prop Tom Francis was sin-binned for a deliberate knock on, leaving them down to 14 for the last nine minutes.
However, incredible goalline defending kept out relentless attacks as Racing went through 19 phases before the English side managed a decisive turnover.
Exeter then earned a last-minute penalty that Joe Simmonds slotted, taking his goalkicking tally in the competition this season to a staggering 39 from 41 attempts.
Exeter’s celebrations were briefly put on hold as referee Nigel Owens tried to establish via the TMO if the clock had ticked into the red before the ball split the posts, finally deciding it had.
“It is an incredible story for these guys and the club and that last 10 minutes seemed to go on forever,” said Exeter coach Rob Baxter, a lifelong servant of the club.
“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.”
The only disappointment for a club that is at the heart of its community was that no fans were there to see it, though remote celebrations are guaranteed to go long into the night.
Exeter’s win follows Bristol’s victory over Toulon in the Challenge Cup final on Friday.
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ken Ferris
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