Henry Slade underlines big-game mentality with winning kick against Toulon

Henry Slade - Henry Slade underlines big-game mentality with winning kick against Toulon
Henry Slade kicks the late conversion to stun the French giants - Getty Images/Anthony Dibon

Toulon 18 Exeter Chiefs 19

How proud the champion Exeter side that triumphed in this competition three years ago would be of these young Chiefs, who staged a remarkable second-half fightback to snatch victory over Toulon and begin their European campaign with a bang.

With the clock in the red, Henry Slade – one of the few players remaining from the side that won the European and domestic double in 2020 – was the hero. He personified calmness as he split the uprights with a last-gasp conversion after Jacques Vermeulen’s late score to seal an unlikely Chiefs win – only Exeter’s second win on the road in 13 months. It could be a defining moment in the evolution of this burgeoning Chiefs outfit.

“It was almost like a fairytale feel to it about the end,” said Rob Baxter, the Exeter director of rugby. “In the last 20 minutes you could feel something happening. For us to convert in the dying seconds was incredible.

“It probably shows you the whole cycle that this group has been on. Starting a European adventure 10, 12, 13 years ago to restarting another European adventure now. It just feels like another new amazing story.”

The late drama had echoes of Slade’s match-winning kick that helped Chiefs edge past Gloucester last month. On that occasion, Slade stepped up to slot home a long-range penalty. This time, he had the backdrop of a hostile French crowd to contend with, but there was a feeling it was always meant to be.

Ten years ago, Slade made his European debut in this exact fixture. A decade on, he continues to single himself out as a big-game player in a side that has been shorn of leadership of late.

Baxter had indicated this was going to be a character-building exercise for his squad of youthful players after their hefty 41-24 defeat at Bath last week. But against three-times European champions Toulon, who sit second in the Top 14, his young guns for the most part matched Toulon’s power game.

Tom Cairns, Exeter’s scrum-half, was a real livewire in both attack and defence, while Ben Hammersley and Harvey Skinner neutralised the kicking threat posed by Melvyn Jaminet.

Skinner underlined Chief’s statement of intent when he intercepted Jack Singleton’s sloppy pass to run from inside his own half for an early score, but Chiefs, who spent most of the first half absorbing waves of pressure, eventually cracked as Toulon’s engine room clicked into gear.

Beka Gigashvili punched his way over the whitewash before the hosts extended their lead through Ben White, who tracked a fine attacking move down the outside channel before finishing with a simple pick-and-go.

The afternoon looked ominous when Exeter coughed up two six more points through Enzo Herve’s boot while Brian Alainu’Uese was in the bin for a high shoulder barge on Hammersley.

But that was as good as it got for Toulon, who were disrupted by the loss of Baptiste Serin, forcing them to operate without a specialist nine for much of a pointless second half.

Exeter capitalised on the momentum swing when Max Norey stepped and twisted his way through the contact to pull a score back for Chiefs on the hour mark.

Norey would later prove equally influential in the build up to Vermeulen’s late score. After a flurry of faltering lineouts, he deliberately threw his last remaining arrow over the top and into the arms of the waiting Joe Hawkins. The move led to Vermeulen crashing over at the death, before Slade showed nerves of steel to seal an ego-boosting win before welcoming Munster next week.