England’s dominant club Exeter will aim to conquer Europe on Saturday in the latest stage of what Chiefs boss Rob Baxter describes as “a fantastic journey”.
Eleven years to the day since Exeter beat Birmingham and Solihull in a low-key Championship game at Sharmans Cross Road, they will contest European club rugby’s biggest prize in front of an anticipated global television audience of six-seven million.
Standing between them and the Heineken Champions Cup in Exeter’s first European final are French challengers Racing 92.
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) October 16, 2020
It will all unfold behind closed doors at Ashton Gate in Bristol, with Baxter’s men aiming to follow Bath, Northampton, Leicester, Wasps and Saracens as English European champions.
And a Chiefs victory would maintain their domestic and European trophy double hopes ahead of next weekend’s Gallagher Premiership final against Wasps.
“It feels a fantastic journey and it has been great, but the important things are what we do every day, every week and every month,” Baxter said.
“That’s what we have got right as a club and there is a huge group of people who have had a massive involvement in everything.
“Hopefully, if we can fast-forward six months and we have got full stadiums and you can walk through the lobby at Sandy Park and the Heineken Cup is there in the cabinet, it elevates everything else you can do moving forward.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt as we have gone along is that we don’t want to sit here and talk about ‘isn’t it great that we have got to the final of the Champions Cup and we can go there and give it a go, and whatever happens it will be a brilliant season’. We have moved way beyond that.
“We are not running around with big smiles on our faces being silly because we have got to a European final for the first time. We are actually locking down into what it will take to win it.
“Obviously, we have had to win a lot of big games to get here, and I still harp back to us actually winning promotion to the Premiership (in 2010) as one of the key, fundamental steps, and it always will be.
“In a weird way, that was the thing that took us the longest to do – it certainly took us the most games – so there have been plenty along the way, and every time you get to one of these landmark games, for obvious reasons, it becomes the biggest game, doesn’t it?”
England wing Jack Nowell has recovered from a foot injury that saw him miss last Saturday’s Premiership play-off victory over Bath and starts in an Exeter team showing one change from their European semi-final win against Toulouse.
Flanker Jacques Vermeulen features instead of Sam Skinner, who is on the bench, while Racing show three changes after they knocked out semi-final opponents Saracens.
Juan Imhoff finished off a stunning team move to clinch a last-gasp win for the French side in the semi-finals 😎
Who are their most important attacking threats ahead of Saturday? pic.twitter.com/Ot1aeFzagO
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) October 14, 2020
Wing Louis Dupichot, centre Henry Chavancy and lock Bernard Le Roux all start, with Teddy Thomas not featuring among Racing’s match-day 23 and Donnacha Ryan and Olivier Klemenczak on the bench.
Baxter added: “I am massively excited, but I am also massively nervous.
“I hate the fact it is a 4.45pm kick-off! I would have loved it if it had been a 3pm kick-off, or liked it even more if it had been 1pm because that morning can take a long time to get through, but that’s what sport is all about.
“The day you don’t get nervous and the day the coaches are not looking at each other and going ‘what’s going to happen today?’ is probably the day we should pack it all up. What are you doing it for otherwise?
“It should be about challenging yourselves, trying to be a bit better than you have been before, and that is what makes it massively exciting for us as a club.”