Exeter confident of passing French test to reach European quarter-finals

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The Independent Online

Exeter have been urged to grasp "the big prize" today of a coveted European quarter-final place.

This time last year, the Chiefs were preparing for a Championship home game against Bedford. Today, they will face the French Top 14 high-flyers Montpellier at Stade Yves du Manoir, knowing victory would take them into the Amlin Challenge Cup last eight.

Given that Exeter have relished every challenge thrown at them during their debut Premiership campaign, the chances of them enjoying another red-letter day should not be discounted. "We are confident in the guys," said the assistant coach Ali Hepher, whose team lie two points behind the French club in Pool Three.

"This group of players love a challenge, and if you look at the challenges they have been set all through this season and also last season, they've met every one of them head-on. They have been to Bourgoin and won this season, so I know these guys have it in them and that they will rise to it again.

"I am sure they will put in a quality performance, with the big prize being the chance to get through to the quarter-finals of a big European competition."

Exeter show a solitary change from the side that beat Sandy Park visitors Bourgoin last weekend, with the hooker Neil Clark replacing Simon Alcott in a team captained by the lock Tom Hayes.

"We are under no illusions about the task, but that is why the Bourgoin win was so special. Equally, the guys can take massive confidence from that game. We know we can win out in France, and we are fully focused on our level of performance. This week we've put in a couple of training sessions which have been among the best of the season, so we are pushing in the right direction," Hepher added.

With Gloucester, Newcastle and Sale Sharks already out of contention for the quarter-finals – and Exeter facing an uphill task in Montpellier – Harlequins could prove to be England's lone survivors in the competition.

Quins are currently five points clear of their Pool One visitors today, Bayonne, knowing that victory would take them through and clinch a home tie. Quins' director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, said: "All we are focusing on is the knowledge that if we win against Bayonne then we are through to the quarter-finals and with a home game. The bottom line is that we simply cannot afford to lose.

"The main thing is that we are in the position we want to be in with our destiny in this tournament in our own hands. We want to qualify for the last eight and we want to be at home in the quarter-finals. We have now won our last six matches in all competitions and we are playing some pretty good rugby," O'Shea added.