Wounded Exeter Chiefs play with pride as French giants take advantage of injury problems
Thank goodness Exeter Chiefs do not have to play Clermont Auvergne every week!
Over 90 minutes (the second half at Sandy Park and the away game) against the French outfit in this season's Heineken Cup, they have shipped 82 points and scored three.
There is no disgrace in that though. Clermont are being, widely tipped to go one better than last season's semi-final and win this year's competition, and on Saturday's display at Stade Marcel Michelin, few would argue with that assessment.
You could only sit back and admire some of their power play and off-loading. It was a joy to watch and had you almost drooling in anticipation at what was to come.
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There should be no surprise in that. They boast a playing budget around seven times the size of that at Exeter – there is no salary cap in France – which allowed them to put out a starting line-up missing three-quarter stars Aurelien Rougerie and Lee Byrne through injury but still containing 13 full internationals with 376 caps between them.
Exeter's performance was a long way from perfect. Scoring chances again frustratingly went begging due to a lack of composure, and there were errors in various parts of their game.
However, you could certainly not fault the effort and commitment of Rob Baxter's men, as players ran themselves into the ground for the cause.
The front row, much criticised in recent games, particularly young prop Ben Moon, deserve special mention for their excellent display at scrum time against a star- studded pack. It would be unfair to pick out other individuals, though, as it was a brave all-round team effort.
They kept the Clermont 'galacticos' out for a 39-minute period stretching either side of half-time, and it was only after the number of injuries became too much and Baxter was forced to put square pegs in round holes that Clermont scored four more tries in the final quarter.
Those injuries are a worry ahead of another massive Chiefs game at home to European champions Leinster next Saturday, when the Irishmen will almost certainly need a bonus-point win to give them any chance of keeping their title defence going by booking themselves a place in the quarter-finals.
Centre Phil Dollman was withdrawn at the interval after a first-half knock; Argentina winger Gonzalo Camacho limped away with a hamstring problem; as did replacement lock Aly Muldowney with suspected damaged ankle ligaments.
Muldowney's exit, only seven minutes after coming on, left Baxter with no option but to replace him with a hooker, Jack Yeandle, who did nothing wrong, but it certainly disadvantaged the Exeter pack in the closing stages.
However, scrum-half Will Chudley did make a welcome return after a three-month lay-off with a shoulder injury picked up in the first game with Clermont in October, and he got through the final 25 minutes.
Fly-half Gareth Steenson uncharacteristically missed two early penalty chances that would have put the Chiefs 6-0 up, but, for the next 15 minutes, Exeter fans could only sit back and watch in awe as Clermont racked up the points.
A penalty by French international scrum-half Morgan Parra – whose goal-kicking was immaculate throughout – was followed by one of the Heineken Cup tries of the season in the 13th minute.
A move that swept from one end of the pitch to the other and involved some outrageously brilliant off-loading was rounded off by classy centre Wesley Fofana after good work by his equally impressive midfield partner Regan King.
Parra converted, added a penalty after cynically throwing the ball at Exeter skipper Tommy Hayes stood in an offside position, and then slotted the extras once more to a try by full-back Jean-Marcellin Buttin after more good work by Fofana.
It was 20-0 and only 22 minutes had elapsed.
Steenson gave Exeter a foothold in the game with a 25th-minute penalty to make it 20-3 at the turnaround, and Exeter started the second period in fine fashion.
A Steenson interception five metres from his own try line took Exeter downfield, but the Chiefs did not make the most of the overlap on the left that was available to them.
They then camped on the Frenchmen's line for several minutes, but try as they could they could not get over it, despite a yellow card for home prop Thomas Domingo for lying over the ball.
That was a crucial point in the game, and as Exeter's wounded started to leave the pitch, Clermont capitalised with tries by No.8 Damien Chouly, replacement fly-half David Skrela with the bonus-point score, Buttin again, and Fijian winger Napolioni Nalaga, with three of them converted, to give the final 46-3 scoreline a very cruel appearance for Exeter.