Rob Baxter targets a vintage display as Exeter aim to taste victory in Bordeaux
Rob Baxter accepts that Exeter will need to get “an awful lot right” when they tackle Heineken Champions Cup holders La Rochelle in this season’s semi-finals.
But Exeter will arrive at the 42,000-capacity Mahmut Atlantique stadium in Bordeaux on Sunday determined to underline their own rich European pedigree.
The 2020 champions are England’s sole survivors, having won five out of six games in Europe this season, including a gripping last-16 success against French champions Montpellier.
And they have got there despite patchy domestic form that undermined their Gallagher Premiership play-off bid as Chiefs missed out behind confirmed semi-finalists Saracens, Sale, Leicester and Northampton.
Exeter beat La Rochelle home and away during their 2019-20 Champions Cup-winning campaign, but the last-four represents Chiefs’ best European run since then.
La Rochelle, in contrast, lifted the trophy last term and were runners-up 12 months before that, confirming their status as strong favourites this weekend.
“They are a good team, and we are going to have to get an awful lot right and be massively resilient,” Exeter rugby director Baxter said.
La conf' de presse 🎙#SRvEXE | #ChampionsCup | #FievreSR pic.twitter.com/9w9IwZxA9v
— Stade Rochelais (@staderochelais) April 26, 2023
“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.
“We’ve got a pretty good record against French teams, and we’ve got to back ourselves with that a little bit and get on with stuff. We’ve got some good firepower in the team.
“We went to La Rochelle and won in our cup-winning year and we won in Castres this season. Occasions in France are brilliant – players love them, they are incredible experiences.
Key player 🔑 @samsimmonds_ has scored four tries for @ExeterChiefs as the #GallagherPrem club has reached the #HeinekenChampionsCup semi-finals ❌
📹 @ChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/ltpBMbfPx3
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) April 27, 2023
“I think you either thrive on the atmosphere, or you don’t. Every game has an ebb and flow around it, and you have got to stick in there sometimes for a long time before you get the benefits of scores.”
Sunday’s clash could be the final European game in Exeter colours for players like brothers Joe and Sam Simmonds, who are moving to France next term, England wing Jack Nowell – a major target for La Rochelle – and retiring Scotland star Stuart Hogg.
So the lure of a possible Champions Cup final appointment with Leinster or Toulouse in Dublin on May 20 cannot be underestimated for numerous reasons.
The last time @ExeterChiefs came up against French giants in a #HeinekenChampionsCup semi-final, they stepped UP 💪
Could it be déjà vu this weekend?
Rewatch that incredible win in 2020 ➡️ https://t.co/p5snKOUrLX pic.twitter.com/DUpMZOYwHg
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 26, 2023
Baxter added: “We’ve got a collection of very good players. There is a lot of international quality in our team.
“The team we take over has got plenty of caps in it, plenty of players who have won important games.
“It is a big game for the club. It feels like a very tight group that is working very hard to make this game successful.
“That is the key, that is how you look after each other, whether you are staying or going, and it feels like we have got that kind of vibe around the place at the moment.
“They are going to come at us, and there are going to be times when we are going to have to weather it, stick together and hold our discipline, hold our work-rate and not take a breath.
“You stay in the fight when it is their moments, and then you take yours when it is your time. There is no way of dressing it up.”