By Nick Powell, Online Editor
Tries: Rhule 9, 44; Seuteni 23, Aldritt 34, Kerr-Barlow 40, 68
Conversions: Hastoy 10, 24, 40+1, 45, 69
Tries: S Simmonds 6, Iosefa-Scott 59, Woodburn 70, Yeandle 75
Conversions: J Simmonds 7, 60, 71, 76
La Rochelle ensured a repeat of the 2022 final in this year’s Champions Cup showpiece against Leinster as they scored seven tries against Exeter in Bordeaux.
For the first quarter, Exeter were just about able to match the extraordinary intensity their heavily-favoured opposition provided, but from the moment UJ Seutini cut through off a short pass in midfield, it was one-way traffic.
Prior to that, in a ferocious start, the sides exchanged early tries as Sam Simmonds quick-tapped his way over before Raymond Rhule grubbered through and then seized upon Antoine Hastoy’s kick through to level the scores in under ten minutes.
After Seuteni’s try put La Rochelle in front, they would add two more against 14 men before the break as first Gregory Aldritt picked from the base of the scrum to make it three, before a sequence of dazzling offloads ended in Tawera Kerr-Barlow scoring and effectively wrapping things up at half-time.
Rhule was again benefitted by the quality of Hastoy as he stepped inside to score after a well-judged crossfield kick, and Hastoy was able to bring up 40 off the tee after Pierre Bourgarit flopped over the line from a dominant maul.
Exeter pulled one back through Josh Iosefa-Scott and another as Stuart Hogg, Henry Slade and Olly Woodburn linked up brilliantly to score a superb third, though in between the two scores Kerr-Barlow had added his second and La Rochelle’s seventh.
Jack Yeandle got the last word in for Exeter as he crashed over for the final try of the game, but La Rochelle had long won the contest and were fully deserving of their place in the final.
“They’re an unbelievable team,” Chiefs skipper Jack Nowell said. “It’s a tough place to come.
“But we fully believed we could come here and win. We fired a few shots in that first half but we certainly let ourselves down at times.
“They’re big boys, we had a gameplan where we thought we could move them around a little bit but fair play to them, they stopped us doing it.”
Chiefs come out swinging but La Rochelle too good
The start was relentless, with huge physicality in every carry, tackle and breakdown as La Rochelle brought their typically brutal power, while Exeter’s smaller pack were succeeding in matching them under the warm Bordeaux sun.
After resisting the first blows thrown by La Rochelle, Exeter worked their way back up the field and eventually crossed as Sam Simmonds smartly quick-tapped a penalty and powered over.
But while they may have hoped they could build upon that lead alongside a defensive rearguard, the speed and nature of reigning champions’ response showed the scale of the task they faced.
Exeter hung in the contest for the next ten minutes, but with increasingly ominous signs of the dominance of the La Rochelle pack, there was a sense that if they weren’t able to take every chance they had the game would run away from them very quickly.
After Seuteni crossed from Aldritt’s deft pass sent him through, La Rochelle quickly took a stranglehold on the game and were soon rewarded for their pack dominance with Chiefs hooker Dan Frost sent to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul.
It left Exeter with a near-impossible task to avoid conceding before the break, and more forward control helped Aldritt get over for a score of his own, before Kerr-Barlow showed the range of La Rochelle’s game when he rounded off the move that sent him over, and gave Exeter a mountain to climb.
Spirited Chiefs avoid embarassment
After Rhule bagged another beautiful second score shortly after the break, again assisted by Hastoy, and Bourgarit mauled his way over, it looked very possible that the scoreline could become extremely ugly reading for Exeter and Premiership rugby fans.
With Chiefs having suffered heavy defeats at Saracens, Harlequins and Leicester in the league this season, they could well have been on the receiving end of an even larger one with the score at 40-7 and 25 minutes left on the clock.
But they responded in exactly the right manner, gaining tighter control of possession and putting together some of their best phases in the match before Iosefa-Scott eventually barrelled over.
La Rochelle and the excellent Kerr-Barlow got another, but a terrific break from Hogg was followed by a well timed pass to Woodburn, who then exchanged offloads with Slade and gave something for their small travelling contingent to savour as he crossed in the corner.
And with La Rochelle getting a final score chalked off in the last minute, it was Yeandle’s try from close range that was the final score in the game.
That made the scoreboard look vastly more respectable for a Chiefs team who can reflect on an impressive European run, and signed things off positively for the host of players departing.
La Rochelle: Dulin; Leyds, Seuteni, Favre, Rhule; Hastoy, Kerr-Barlow; Wardi, Bourgarit, Atonio, Sazy, Skelton, Dillane, Botia, Alldritt (capt).
Substitutes: Lespiaucq, Sclavi, Colombe Reazel, Lavault, Boudehent, Bourdeau, Berjon, Thomas.
Exeter: Wyatt; Nowell (capt), Slade, O’Brien, Woodburn; J Simmonds, Becconsall; Sio, Frost, Street, Kirsten, Gray, Vermeulen, Tshiunza, S Simmonds.
Substitutes: Yeandle, Abuladze, Iosefa-Scott, Davis, Ewers, Townsend, Skinner, Hogg
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