Just as they begin to falter on the domestic front, Exeter finally find some form in Europe. Typical. It looks as if Saracens are going to adopt a philosophical position on Europe for a season. If so, one of their most vocal critics may just be about to step up and show those sceptics on the continent that the Premiership challenge amounts to more than just that of the defamed champions.
This was a wonderfully hard and clinical performance from the Chiefs in one of the more ferocious dens of French rugby, which is saying something. La Rochelle are appearing in their second campaign in this tournament, but they fairly lit up their first and have not lost here in nine matches, or eight months. Four tries and 31 points speaks of quite the dismantling. Nor does it flatter.
Exeter’s fans travelled in their numbers and had the measure of the locals as much as their heroes did on the field. By the time Sam Simmonds registered the bonus-point try with more than a quarter of an hour to play, we might as well have been at Sandy Park.
That said, last Sunday Exeter’s stronghold fell deathly silent when Bristol snatched an outrageous victory with the last play of the game to leave Exeter nonplussed after their opening four fixtures of the domestic season – two wins, two losses. This was some way to respond, in a competition that has yet to see the best of them.
The manner of this landmark win was as impressive as the fact. The Joe Simmonds era appears to be established now. With Sam’s younger brother at the helm and Henry Slade as an alternative pivot outside him, the Chiefs seem to be developing their game beyond the relentless phase-recycling for which they have received criticism in the past. Not only deadly from the tee, Simmons Jr is bringing out the best of the talents outside, no less a threat than Stuart Hogg now numbering himself among the usual suspects.
An early try by Dave Dennis set the tone, sparked by some lovely interplay between Tommy O’Flaherty – a future star for sure – and Harry Williams.
Exeter’s defensive detail was as exacting as one might expect and they forced La Rochelle into error after error. The home team thought they had an equalising score a few minutes later, but the TMO ruled Alexis Bales’s pass had gone forward. The reminder of La Rochelle’s threat resounded all the same.
Exeter resisted it admirably, and then struck for a second time just before the break. O’Flaherty this time turned scorer, the young winger finishing expertly in the corner after Joe Simmonds’s lovely cut-out pass. The conversion was the second successful kick of another five from five from Exeter’s fly-half. He has not missed one this season.
La Rochelle responded with a brilliant try by Geoffrey Doumayrou five minutes into the second half. Vincent Rattez set Doumayrou and Arthur Retiere off on an outrageous combination down the right, which the latter finished.
Just as they looked as if they might build on that, Slade plucked Jeremy Sinzelle’s pass out of the air to canter home in that increasingly familiar style of his. Fifteen minutes into the second half, at 21-5 to the visitors, the game was all but done.
Simmonds Sr put matters beyond doubt. Alex Cuthbert, a third Lion to populate Exeter’s wide outside with Jack Nowell entering the fray in the final quarter, cut in from his wing to set the stage. Simmonds dummied and drove through the tackle of Retiere, claiming the bonus point with more than quarter of an hour to play. His younger brother landed a penalty with five to go and the Chiefs’ new statement on Europe had been declared.
There was time for La Rochelle to show what might have been with a typically extravagant score. Brock James’s cross-kick was taken by Sinzelle, who flicked the ball nonchalantly inside to Kini Murimurivalu for a try at the death. It was not undeserved but will have been of limited consolation.
They are not used to losing at home. Exeter look at last as if they might be getting to grips with Europe.