European Champions Cup: Can Exeter carry domestic form into Europe?

Exeter unhappy after Champions Cup loss

Over the past four seasons, Exeter have risen to become one of the dominant sides in English domestic rugby.

The Chiefs have made each of the last three Premiership finals, are currently topping the table once again and only Saracens, with 55 wins, have more league victories than Exeter’s 53 over that period.

But when it comes to the European Champions Cup it is another story – just once have they made it out of their pool and the club has never won a knockout match.

Ahead of Saturday’s opener against Irish side Munster, BBC Sport looks at how a side so dominant on the domestic front can start to make their mark on the biggest stage of all.

‘Intensity levels have to go up’

Exeter have made Europe’s top-tier competition five times since being promoted into the Premiership in 2010.

But in that time they have never recorded more than three pool wins in a season and made the knockout stages just once – when they suffered an agonising last-kick 25-24 quarter-final loss at Wasps in 2016.

That year, the Chiefs topped a pool featuring Bordeaux, Clermont Auvergne and Ospreys on points difference after every side had recorded three victories.

“We’ve maybe had a mental shift with the whole thing,” Exeter’s experienced fly-half Gareth Steenson told BBC Sport.

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The 34-year-old Irishman has been through it all at Sandy Park – kicking the winning scores which not only got them into the Premiership in 2010, but also won them their first top-flight title at Twickenham seven years later.

“When we got into the Heineken Cup it was a learning experience because it was the first time the club had been up there,” Steenson added.

“A lot of the guys had never played at that level, so it was very much us wanting to be a better team coming out the other side.

“Last year was really the first year we were a bit disappointed with how we performed.

“But I think we probably learned some great lessons from when we played Leinster [Exeter lost 18-8 ] because we were going really well in the Premiership at that point and we kind of rolled into it.

“It’s definitely given us something to talk about this week – we’ve been on good form in the Premiership and we’ve got to knuckle down and intensity levels have got to go up.”

Putting Exeter ‘onto that next level’

There is no doubt that Exeter have had their fair share of tough groups in Europe – in the years they have not won their pool, the side that has topped the group has always gone on to at least make the final.

But do they need to adapt what they do domestically in order to succeed overseas?

“We did a lot of good things last year and we learned a lot of good lessons in our pool,” says Exeter’s England prop Alec Hepburn.

“Games are played slightly differently. There’s more competition at the breakdown, the Premiership maybe gives more leeway to the attacking team. I’m not a referee, but when you’re out there it has that feel.

“But they’re very high-pressured stakes, so it’s about minimising your mistakes.”

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Last season, Exeter looked to have a golden chance to make the last eight – the then reigning English champions beat Glasgow and Montpellier in their opening two games before back-to-back losses to eventual champions Leinster.

But a bonus-point win over Montpellier at Sandy Park in their fifth game meant they could have gone through as one of the three-best runners up had they won at Glasgow – only for a 28-21 loss at Scotstoun to end their hopes.

“The truth is it’s not that much more, that’s the bit everyone’s got to get their head around,” director of rugby Rob Baxter said when asked what his side have to improve on.

“It’s all very well people saying ‘Exeter have been this bit off’, but actually we’ve been very, very close and the level we’ve been able to put out on the field has been nearly there.

“What we’re trying to focus on now is not to be in a scenario where if one or two things go against us we don’t qualify. Now, we’ve got to push ourselves onto the next level and go ‘if a few things go against us we can still drive our way through it’.

“If you look at Leinster in that second game away from home we had them under a lot of pressure, they were behind on the scoreboard for a lot of the time, and they found a way to win.

“That’s what we’ve got to add, it’s not changing our game or finding some whole new strategies. It’s about putting ourselves onto that next level where when it really comes down to it, we find a way to win.

“We’ve been able to do that in the Premiership, the results show that. Now we’ve got to show that in Europe.”

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