La Rochelle v Exeter Chiefs: Champions Cup preview as Jonathan Danty-less holders to keep title defence alive

·6-min read
La Rochelle v Exeter Credit: Alamy
La Rochelle v Exeter Credit: Alamy

The second semi-final of the Champions Cup sees the holders, La Rochelle, welcome Exeter Chiefs to France for what will certainly be a brutal clash.

La Rochelle were absolute class in the quarter-finals against Saracens as they battered the English side out of the contest. Levani Botia had the game of his life as part of a huge forward pack that dominated the contest and suffocated their opponents.

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Exeter Chiefs on the other hand put together a tactically brilliant performance against the Stormers, giving the South Africans nothing at all to work with as they powered into the semi-finals, putting aside their Premiership form troubles at the time.

What transpired from those two games is an intriguing meeting between teams who know what it takes to be European champions. What remains to be seen is whether Exeter can handle the French side’s physicality that is a hallmark of their play.

If they can they will give themselves half a chance and with France international centre Jonathan Danty absent for Ronan O’Gara’s men, a glimmer of hope emerges for Exeter fans, who know that only a faultless performance will do this weekend.

Team news

La Rochelle have made two changes, one positional, to their backline that played in the quarter-finals as Dillyn Leyds comes in for injured France star Danty, with Jules Favre moving to centre after starting on the wing in the victory over Saracens.

Romain Sazy is named as a starting lock in place of Thomas Lavault in the only tweak to the forward pack, which includes the likes of Botia and Gregory Alldritt.

Exeter’s cause will be aided by the return of a number of key names for the Champions Cup showdown in Bordeaux.

Jack Nowell has overcome a knee injury to skipper the side, whilst Scott Sio, Jonny Gray and Jacques Vermeulen all return to the pack having missed last weekend’s Premiership victory over the Bristol Bears.

Tom Wyatt is once again preferred over Stuart Hogg at full-back while Will Becconsall continues alongside Joe Simmonds in the half-backs.

Where the game will be won

The collision area will be central to the result of the match. La Rochelle have a truly massive forward pack and play towards that. They scrum really well and carry relentlessly. The likes of the gargantuan Will Skelton absolutely relish being physical and imposing themselves on their opponents.

Exeter will need to find a way to deal with that and also reduce the influence of Botia, who was outrageously good at the breakdown against Saracens and completely disarmed them as a result.

The Chiefs planned well for the Stormers’ rush defence in the quarters but this is a completely different prospect and they will have to match the holders up front or the game will run away from them.

Last time they met

What they said

Skelton is no stranger to Exeter having spent several seasons at Saracens in the Premiership. He is expecting a physical clash against the Devon side.

“I learned not only about myself as a rugby player but as a person in English rugby. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Prem,” he said.

“Whenever I played Exeter the physicality was always there. With a lot of their players leaving this is almost their last dance. They will definitely bring it.”

Meanwhile, Exeter boss Rob Baxter knows his side must click in every department if they are to claim victory in France.

“They are a good team, and we are going to have to get an awful lot right and be massively resilient,” he said.

“They are going to land shots, and we just have to get up and get on with stuff and not get hurt by any one thing that happens. That consistent level of intensity across 80 minutes is always the key in big games.

“We are going very much to overturn the tables, which is a nice challenge for us and one we should be relishing and looking to enjoy.”

Players to watch

We’ve already mentioned Will Skelton and Levani Botia, who are two incredible specimens who will keep Exeter busy throughout on Sunday. The hulking pair offer so much to this La Rochelle pack while the likes of Alldritt and Uini Atonio are equally influential match after match.

Also keep an eye on former All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow at the base as he was outstanding in their quarter-final victory over Saracens, scoring two tries as he combined well with Antoine Hastoy in the half-backs. These two will also be key cogs for La Rochelle.

For Exeter, it’s no doubt going to be an extra special occasion for those players leaving the club at the end of the season. Number eight Sam Simmonds is one such individual who will be highly motivated not to bow out at this stage and keep his European dreams alive.

Exeter also need massive games from England duo Henry Slade and Jack Nowell in the backline, with moments of X-factor and calm leadership vital if they are to spring a shock this weekend.


Even with the absence of Danty, it’s hard to look past a La Rochelle victory on Sunday. The power they have at their disposal has proved too much for many opponents and we expect Exeter to be the latest to come up short this weekend. La Rochelle by 12.

Previous results

2020: Exeter won 33-14 at Sandy Park
2019: Exeter won 31-12 at Stade Marcel-Deflandre

The teams

La Rochelle: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 UJ Seuteni, 12 Jules Favre, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Antoine Hastoy, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Grégory Alldritt (c), 7 Levani Botia, 6 Ultan Dillane, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Romain Sazy, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 1 Reda Wardi
Replacements: 16 Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes, 17 Joel Sclavi, 18 Georges Henri Colombe, 19 Thomas Lavault, 20 Paul Boudehent, 21 Remi Bourdeau, 22 Thomas Berjon, 23 Teddy Thomas

Exeter Chiefs: 15 Tom Wyatt, 14 Jack Nowell (c), 13 Henry Slade, 12 Sean O’Brien, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Joe Simmonds, 9 Will Becconsall, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Christ Tshiunza, 6 Jacques Vermeulen, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Jannes Kirsten, 3 Marcus Street, 2 Dan Frost, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Nika Abuladze, 18 Josh Iosefa-Scott, 19 Aidon Davis, 20 Dave Ewers, 21 Stu Townsend, 22 Harvey Skinner, 23 Stuart Hogg

Date: Sunday, April 30
Venue: Matmut Atlantique, Bordeaux
Kick-off: 16:00 local (15:00 BST, 14:00 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Andrea Piardi (Italy)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)

READ MORE: Leinster v Toulouse: Champions Cup preview as Les Rouge et Noir to stun Irish side

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