Exeter blown out of Champions Cup by Toulouse’s second-half blitz | Champions Cup


Winning big knockout games in France takes a lot of doing and two English triumphs in successive days really would have been something special. Even when Exeter led 19-17 early in the second half there was still a sense a star-studded ­Toulouse side would prove too strong and so it proved as the hosts booked their place in the Champions Cup semi-finals for the sixth straight year.

When they really put the pedal to the metal there are few teams anywhere who can live with Antoine Dupont and co and Exeter, initially feisty and purposeful, were eventually swept away by an irresistible crimson tide, conceding 28 points in just over 11 minutes in a sobering third quarter. Even Harlequins, so heroic in Bordeaux on Saturday, will have their work seriously cut out in this boiling cauldron in the last four.

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On this occasion, though, it was less the Gallic genius of Dupont and Romain Ntamack that did for Exeter than the imported skills of Scotland’s Blair Kinghorn and England’s Jack Willis. Kinghorn is absolutely loving life – and who wouldn’t? – since relocating from Edinburgh and capped a fine all-round display with two tries and a total of 23 points. Willis also took the opportunity to remind certain people at home of his capabilities and scored the first-half try that helped defuse the away side’s early promise.

It is not necessary to spend too long in Toulouse to understand why increasing numbers of Premiership players are moving to France. Even before kick-off, as thousands of fans formed a raucous guard of honour simply to cheer their heroes to the dressing rooms, it was clear that Exeter would be hard pressed to replicate Quins’ spectacular achievement 24 hours earlier.

As Rob Baxter, their director of rugby, said afterwards, it is mighty hard to stop Toulouse when their offloading game starts to click and nine tries to two was probably a fair reflection of the gap between the sides in terms of budget, squad depth and big game experience. Baxter said his players were “chasing shadows” long before the end and bouncing back from this to defeat a more rested Bath in the Premiership on Saturday will be another tough ask.

Antoine Dupont breaks clear to score Toulouse’s sixth try. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Exeter had been hoping to replicate their stirring win in Toulon in this season’s pool stages but, in truth, this was a different basket of ­croissants entirely. It was properly hot and Toulouse’s team sheet was almost ludicrously well stocked. Even their bench featured top-class French internationals in Julien Marchand, Thibaud Flament and Thomas Ramos and the sun baked home supporters were suitably expectant.

It was to a young Exeter side’s credit, therefore, that they proved genuinely competitive in the first 40 minutes, competing hard around the contact area and not making life straightforward for Toulouse’s ­galacticos, aside from a defensive mix-up out wide which yielded an early try for Ntamack.

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Their cause was bolstered by two penalties for Henry Slade and a bullocking try for Ethan Roots from a smart tap penalty routine close to the line, despite home claims of a knock-on by Tom Cairns in the build-up. Peato Mauvaka was also sent to the sin-bin in the 17th minute as local tempers began to fray and, while Kinghorn did trim the margin with a long-range penalty, the visitors were refusing to retreat from the fight.

The home crowd were less than impressed with some of Irish referee Chris Busby’s interpretations, but Exeter’s spirit and enterprise were undeniable, with Dafydd Jenkins and Roots giving everything for the cause. Slade knocked over another penalty to make it 16-10 after Willis was again penalised for going off his feet but the English flanker’s afternoon was about to improve significantly. There did not seem much immediate danger when the former Wasps forward received the ball but he sat down the Exeter fly-half Harvey Skinner and galloped away to score a try which Kinghorn duly converted to make it 17-16.

Slade’s fourth penalty made it 19-17 shortly after the resumption but the floodgates were about to open. Wave upon wave of red shirts surged upfield and the scoreboard began to rotate like a fruit machine. Pita Akhi, forming an excellent midfield partnership with Paul Costes, contributed a brace of tries, as did Juan Cruz Mallía, and Dupont showed impressive pace to outsprint Josh Hodge for another. Aside from a consolation try for Zach Wimbush, it made for increasingly Exe-rated viewing.


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