Exeter Chiefs would accept that this, their first season in the Heineken Cup (and their first-ever home game of the tournament), is all about the experience and this was some experience. Leading last night by two points at the interval, they conceded six second-half tries to a team among the favourites to reach next May's final.
Clermont Auvergne, beaten only twice in this season's Top 14, would have been in last May's final but for a disputed try in the semi-final with Leinster. Here they offered the kind of quality of which Exeter can only dream; oozing finesse, they shook off a tepid first 40 minutes to inflict a bruising, but not humiliating, defeat on a club which, three years ago, had a Championship match with Rotherham.
"Lots of what we did was very good but for half an hour there was too much coming in the other direction," Rob Baxter, Exeter's head coach, said. "But this is how we will get better, playing teams like this. The Heineken Cup is about big, intense games."
Not that Clermont needed it but, as always seems to be the case with the class acts, the rub of the green went with them too. If there was a turnover to be had, it went their way, their second try came despite Wesley Fofana appearing to step on the touchline and, for the closing 12 minutes, Exeter had to play with a centre at scrum-half after losing the replacement half-back, Will Chudley, to injury, a lock in midfield and a prop on the flank.
Yet the aristocracy of Europe, never mind England, do not enjoy playing the nouveaux riches of Exeter. For all their 13 starting internationals (compared with Exeter's two), Clermont found themselves on the back foot for most of the first half though every now and again, like a pedigree Alsatian, they shook themselves enough to menace the home line.
But the Exeter terriers, with Luke Arscott to the fore, never left them alone. They stole the first two line-outs and Steenson knocked over the penalties every time the French club offended. Their set-piece success made it all the more regrettable that Exeter conceded a try from their own line-out.
They had done so well to keep Napolioni Nalaga out at the corner but Jamie Cudmore stole the throw five metres from the line and Nalaga joined his forwards to be driven over. Morgan Parra's conversion overtook Steenson's first two penalties and the little fly-half added two goals.
But their advantage was reduced when Richard Baxter received a yellow card for a flagrant offside and Parra brought his side back to within two points. The impact of Vern Cotter's half-time team talk was instantly apparent: now Clermont dominated possession and made the best possible use of it.
After Fofana had tiptoed down the touchline from a turnover, Julien Bonnaire – by a distance the man of the match – completed a move which flowed relentlessly against Exeter. Sitiveni Sivivatu secured Clermont's try bonus and the last two tries, by Fofana and Nalaga, came when Exeter were at sixes and sevens. You could argue they did not deserve such a drubbing but few sides are as admirably equipped to give one as the men from the Massif.
Exeter L Arscott; I Whitten, P Dollman, J Shoemark (S Naqelevuki, 55), M Jess; G Steenson (I Mieres, 63; sin-bin 80), H Thomas (W Chudley, 60; B Moon, 68); B Sturgess, S Alcott (C Whitehead, 41), C Rimmer (C Budgen, 35-41, 76), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (A Muldowney, 63), T Johnson (D Welch, 63), R Baxter (sin-bin 36-47) J Scaysbrook.
Clermont L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt; B Stanley, 60), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James (D Skrela, 67), M Parra (L Radosavljevic, 72); T Domingo (V Debaty, 47), B Kayser (T Paulo, 60), D Zirakashvili (D Kotze, 63), J Cudmore (L Jacquet, 68)), J Pierre, G Vosloo (E Vermeulen, 28), D Chouly, J Bonnaire.
Referee John Lacey.
Pens: Steenson 4
Tries: Nalaga 2, Fofana 2, Bonnaire, Sivivatu
Cons: Parra 3, Skrela 2
Pens: Parra 2
- More about: