Five of the eight remaining sides in this season’s Champions Cup are from France but Exeter’s director of rugby, Rob Baxter, believes a first Gallic triumph for six years is far from guaranteed as his defending champions prepare to face the Pro 14 winners Leinster in Saturday’s quarter-final.
Unlike the last five editions of the tournament, which have seen four English successes plus Leinster’s triumph in 2018, the leading Top 14 sides are mounting their most concerted challenge since the heydays of Toulon and Toulouse but Baxter does not feel the lopsided quarter-final draw necessarily reflects the balance of power.
“It’s a little more complex than saying: ‘The French have got it right this year,’” suggested Baxter, whose team beat Racing 92 in a memorable final in Bristol last October. “If you went back to the weekend did Clermont outclass Wasps? No. Did Toulouse blow away Munster? No. Could the games have gone the other way? Potentially, yes, particularly the Wasps game. You could very easily have had a relatively even split in these quarter finals.”
Had Wasps held on at home to Clermont on Saturday – they eventually lost 25-27 – there would have been three English sides in the last eight and, with Covid-19 also disrupting the tournament’s rhythm, Baxter’s instinct is that now is not the time to leap to hasty conclusions. “When you get to the last eight of Europe, how many Premiership clubs should be there? We’ve got two … it’s not a bad showing in a bad year.
“Is it that France have got something hugely better or have they just produced enough in two games to get them over the line? The margins didn’t feel that wide and it doesn’t feel like the gap has grown that big that quickly.”
The bookmakers, furthermore, have the sole Irish representatives Leinster installed as this season’s tournament favourites, perhaps based on Exeter’s failure to beat their opponents in four previous European pool games since 2012. Given the Chiefs are the defending European and Premiership champions, however, Baxter says his side will not be remotely overawed.
“If we talked about past history Exeter would never be anywhere near the final of the Premiership or the European Cup and we’ve now won both,” Baxter said. “I think it’s more about talking about the here and now, and the here and now is that we have an expectation to do well in Europe and domestically. So do Leinster which makes it a clash of two clubs who are expecting to do well.”
The Chiefs are also hopeful that their England winger Jack Nowell will shortly be back from a hamstring strain, his latest setback following a long absence recovering from a foot injury. Nowell will not feature against Leinster but could reappear in the coming weeks. “We’ve got the reins on him and we’re holding him back but he’s there or thereabouts,” said Baxter. “Jack would say he could play this weekend but history says he could potentially hurt himself again.”
Exeter, meanwhile, have announced a pre-tax loss of £2.26m for the financial year to June 2020, citing the “significant” effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. Turnover fell by £4.73m as a direct result of the suspension of the season last March.
Previously Chiefs had been the only Premiership club to record a regular profit but Baxter says the club remain optimistic about the future. “In the current climate it’s not as worrying as it could be. That amount of money is significant but in the current climate it’s probably pretty good. We have lost that amount because of having zero crowds and bar takings and reduced funding in other areas. As long as there’s an answer for it you can deal with it.”