Rob holds up hands as Exe are taught a French lesson
ROB Baxter is staying positive after a difficult night of rugby in central France which saw Exeter Chiefs' chances of European progress extinguished with a heavy defeat.
For the second time against the Chiefs, the French maestros ran in six tries on their way to racking up 46 points
But in truth, the one-sided scoreline said more about the quality of their star-studded opponents – and a string of Chiefs injuries – than a first glance might suggest.
The Chiefs battled hard for large parts of the game, created several presentable opportunities, had Gonzalo Camacho, Phil Dollman and replacement Aly Muldowney forced off with injuries, and generally deserved more than just Gareth Steenson's lone penalty.
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A patched-up Chiefs side, which ended up with young hooker Jack Yeandle playing in the back row, conceded four tries in the final 20 minutes as an outstanding Clermont team smelled blood and ran riot.
But it is the knowledge that the Chiefs held their own for much of the match against a side considered by many bookmakers as favourites for the crown that led Baxter to remain positive in defeat.
"I think we are pretty level-headed about it. It was a tough game against one of the best sides in Europe and we came up short," said Baxter.
"It was a tough game and more than anything it shows what a good team Clermont are.
"They are a very good side and they took the opportunities that they created, and a good side maximises every bit of possession that they have.
"They scored a couple of fantastic length-of-the-pitch tries and sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say that it was a great try.
"You obviously can't ignore the scores they got at the end of the game, but we were chasing the match and had to rearrange our team like we did in the first game against Clermont.
"We were under pressure on the scoreboard and that was always going to be difficult for us and it can get away from you in that position."
Enjoying new experiences and learning from them has been a consistent theme of Baxter's tenure as head coach at Sandy Park.
That mentality has seen the Chiefs consistently improve as a force in the Premiership, ultimately leading them to qualification for Europe's premier club rugby competition.
And despite the chastening nature of Saturday's setback, Baxter's message to his players was no different.
"We have to make sure we think carefully about how we respond to this and work hard on it," he explained.
"We have to use the result to improve ourselves – that is the level that we now have to reach for.
"I don't think we can just isolate the scoreline and look at that – that would be a mistake. I know it sounds strange but I do not think we did an awful lot wrong.
"Often after heavy defeats, you think maybe you did not win enough ball or gave away too many penalties, but the reality is that it wasn't the case.
"We had plenty of ball and did not give away too many penalties and even had quite good territory too."
It was actually the Chiefs who made the brighter start to the match, with Steenson missing two penalties early on.
Quite what difference a 6-0 lead against a side boasting the likes of Wesley Fofana, Morgan Parra and Sitiveni Sivivatu is unclear.
What was clear was that they could not afford to miss opportunities against a team unbeaten in 53 home matches and looking to seal top spot in Pool 5, and they were made to pay.
Parra slotted a penalty before converting Fofana's bullish try.
The increasingly-influential Parra kicked another penalty and conversion – this time from Jean-Marcellin Buttin's try – before Steenson booted a penalty for the Chiefs' only points.
Trailing 20-3 at the interval and minus the services of an injured Dollman, Exe began the second half brightly, enjoying a sustained period of pressure on Clermont's line but unable to break through a stubborn defence, even with loosehead Thomas Domingo sin-binned.
Gonzalo Camacho was replaced by compatriot Ignacio Mieres after a hamstring strain, but the score stayed the same until the hour-mark, when the hosts eased clear.
No 8 Damien Chouly touched down from a ruck, before David Skrela secured the bonus point with a powerful run and score, with the metronomic Parra slotting the conversions.
Buttin then grabbed his second of the evening as he dotted down following a delicate pass from Ludovic Radosavljevic, before Nalaga capped an imposing display by coming in off his flank to round off the scoring with the final play of the match.
On paper, things do not get much easier for the Chiefs as defending champions Leinster visit Sandy Park for their final pool match on Saturday.
But Baxter was quick to underline that, with the Chiefs eager to rub shoulders with Europe's elite on a regular basis, the journey was not always going to be easy.
"We should be disappointed when we lose but we are in the top flight in domestic rugby and in the Heineken Cup too and you are not going to go undefeated in those competitions," he said.
"It is always unlikely that you are going to win it in your first season too – you have to remember that Clermont have never won it and have some fantastic players.
"We just have pick ourselves up and learn from it ahead of Leinster."