SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Exeter learn to keep their eyes on the prize

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Exeter learn to keep their eyes on the prize with pulsating Champions Cup triumph

  • Exeter Chiefs won the Champions Cup at Ashton Gate after beating Racing 92
  • They overcame big match nerves and a brilliant team with a with a foreign style
  • They did so through focus and the basic components of their game being strong

Many years ago I took England for a couple of training camps with the Royal Marines just south of Exeter at Lympstone on the River Exe and my mind went back to those hot, demanding summer days with those elite troops watching Saturday’s brilliant final.

The Marines were incredibly fit, the best soldiers in the world, but you might think there was nothing much they could teach us about rugby.You could not be more wrong.

What they could help us with was practicality and the importance of ‘simply getting the job done’ by whatever means at your disposal. Making the correct decisions under pressure, keep calm, keep your head, do what needs doing, remember what the mission is. Execute and win.

Exeter can now complete a domestic and European double after winning the Champions Cup

In rugby terms that means running off the pitch after 80 minutes having scored more points than the opposition and of course that is doubly so in a big cup final when there is no second chance as there is in league rugby. Winning matters!

That is what Exeter accomplished on Saturday and I am delighted for them as a club and in particular their excellent coach Rob Baxter and chairman Tony Rowe who have been working towards this for so long.

As Baxter told us during and after the game, he didn’t think his side were at their absolute best at times but the thing about finals is that you only need to be good enough — nobody cares how you win, you just have to do it.

Big-match nerves kick in, the opposition are by definition probably the best team you have faced all season and, in Racing, Exeter faced a playing style foreign to that which they usually encounter.

Referee Nigel Owens (fourth from right) awards Exeter a second try, scored by Sam Simmonds

The Chiefs overcame all that because they kept their eyes on the prize and the basic components of their game are so strong. They won the scrummage battle, defended strongly at important times and, in Joe Simmonds, seem to have the most reliable English goalkicker since Jonny Wilkinson.

Only their lineout wobbled a little, especially early on, but they mended that as well. Get those three components right and you will be there or thereabouts.

Racing, on the other hand, will be kicking themselves.

I’m not talking about their horribly nervous start when the usually reliable Teddy Iribaren was all at sea or even the intercepted pass that Finn Russell threw which gifted Exeter one of their tries and a couple of kicks and quick lineouts that didn’t come off.

Gareth Steenson enjoys a moment of glory with the trophy after Exeter’s dramatic final victory

That comes with the territory with Racing. They are not frightened to take risks and back themselves.

They play by the seat of their pants with emotion and passion and that’s what we love about them.

It’s part of their DNA and the fact is they contributed hugely to one of the best finals I can remember in so many ways the criticism that follows is through gritted teeth because there is so much to enthuse over with Racing.

But guys, keep your eyes on the prize. There were three points on offer with a routine dropped goal during that epic 19-phase siege of the Exeter line when they were trailing by just one point with five minutes or so left. Why on earth wouldn’t you do the obvious thing and pop the ball over and put Exeter behind for the first time?

Chiefs hooker Jack Yeandle (centre) downs a well-earned beer alongside the victorious squad

I would love to ask all 23 players in their squad what they should have done. All 23 would say drop the goal! It was the logical thing to do.

Yet Russell never once looked to drop back into the pocket, nor did the very experienced Maxime Machenaud ever direct him to drop back for an attempt. Even genius players need to do the obvious sometimes and a failure to recognise that can see dreams destroyed.

I’ve grown to greatly admire Russell as a player — he can be sensational and his passing is a thing of beauty. He is so good that if I was lucky enough to coach him I would base my entire back division around his special talents but I would also move heaven and earth to find ways of getting him to think correctly when under pressure and just get the job done.

For Exeter there is little time to absorb the enormity of it all with a Premiership final against Wasps now looming.

They badly want that double but we all saw at the World Cup this time last year how difficult it can be to get back up in such huge games.

Somehow I don’t see that happening to Exeter but it will be a challenging time for them and adds a real X-factor to, Covid permitting, what should be a fascinating match-up.

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