Classy Clermont give Chiefs the chop
Graham Jenkins at Sandy Park
October 20, 2012
Wesley Fofana proved too much for the Chiefs in the second-half © PA Photos
Frankel was not the only thoroughbred to underline its class on Saturday - another similarly dominant display was witnessed at Sandy Park where the Exeter Chiefs' induction into the Heineken Cup hit a sizeable bump in the road in the form of Clermont Auvergne.
A gusty showing from the Chiefs against three-time champions Leinster in their opener last weekend raised hopes that the Premiership side would defy the odds and challenge for superiority in arguably the toughest Pool in this year's competition.
Fuelled by that belief the Chiefs more than held their own in the first-half and deserved their narrow lead, which could have been more substantial had they been a little more clinical in the final third. For 40 minutes at least it looked like a side boasting more than a decade's experience in Europe's premier club competition was about to be humbled by a side with just 80 minutes on their Heineken Cup clock.
They soon learned that charity at this level of competition will cost you dear, with the French giants, who had until that point been frustrated by their hosts' industry and commitment, simply stepping up their game a gear or three to give the Chiefs the chop.
Exeter's lively and crowd-pleasing opening, with scrum-half Haydn Thomas and fullback Luke Arscott stand-out performers, had threatened an upset but they were clearly playing at full throttle while Clermont were in cruise control. That ability to roll with the punches is something that they have mastered over years of Top 14 and Heineken Cup heartache and it is a process that Exeter must also go through.
What should bring them hope is that if you learn from those painful experiences and sharpen your game as Clermont have clearly done then you will find yourself well-placed to not only challenge for the biggest prizes but win them.
Defeat at the hands of one of the most talent-heavy sides ever assembled - with a towering performance by flanker Julien Bonnaire at its heart - is no disgrace and will benefit the Chiefs in the long run as they plot a revival when the competition resumes in December. But the nature of their loss - swept aside by six-tries-to-none and 36 unanswered second-half points - will be frustrating for coach Rob Baxter.
The class that Clermont Auvergne possess in abundance was the telling factor in what proved to be a one-sided clash. Aside from talisman Bonnaire, the mixture of brute force, offered by the likes of lock Jamie Cudmore, and flair in the shape of centre Wesley Fofana make for a potent combination. In some cases the player in question possesses both terrifying traits, with wingers Napolioni Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu earning tries for their power-packed displays.
Such riches are not within the Chiefs' reach - a fact they have long since acknowledged. It was an unrivalled team bond and spirit, along with a enviable work-rate, that propelled them from Championship challengers to Premiership stalwarts in the matter of a few seasons. The problem is that the recipe for success on the Heineken Cup stage demands a special ingredient, a world-class talent or two, and the Chiefs' cupboard may be a little bare when it comes to such game-breakers.
It was a shame for the club as a whole as in every other way they looked at home in the Heineken Cup spotlight. Bullish fans talked up their prospects before the game and nearly 10,000 packed out their impressive Sandy Park home for the historic fixture.
Expectation was high and the general feeling among fans, some of whom were not-so-fresh from the previous weekend in Dublin, was that they had earned their right to compete with the best and had no intention of relinquishing their place among Europe's elite.
Many will attest to the fact that the matchday experience at Sandy Park is special - from the chanting that echoes their Native American moniker to the distant hum of traffic on the nearby M5 motorway when the rest of the stadium falls silent for a kick. It is one of the must-do grounds in English rugby and is another that would clearly be worthy of a role at Rugby World Cup 2015 if money was not the driving factor behind the sport's showpiece event.
Add in a the efforts of the Lympstone South West Telecoms Brass Band and you have yourself a party. It may not have been music to Clermont Auvergne's ears, or struck fear into their hearts in the way their own Stade Marcel Michelin torments opponents, but they will certainly remember their first trip here. The strength of the side they assembled for the task - without a hint of rotation - underlined not only their desire in terms of the title but also their respect for the Chiefs.
The Heineken Cup may have broken new ground in Belgium earlier in the day with Racing Metro tackling Saracens in Brussels but it is another fresh venue - Sandy Park - that has an infinitely better chance of playing a significant role in the future of the tournament.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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