Anyone unlucky enough to encounter Clermont Auvergne when the French club's stars, both human and astrological, are in the right alignment – when Wesley Fofana purrs into overdrive, Julien Bonnaire plays at the top of his game and Morgan Parra brings all the forces together like a conductor – might be forgiven for wishing they were somewhere else, preferably far away. Exeter certainly disappeared from view during the second half of Saturday night's 46-12 defeat at Sandy Park. And wherever it was they ended up, they found precious little solace there.
Having given a striking account of themselves in the champions' lair a week previously – they lost by only three points to Leinster in Dublin and might easily have won – this second defeat, painful in a very different way, means the Heineken Cup newcomers' interest in the tournament is now restricted to messing things up for others. Rob Baxter, the Exeter head coach, always recognised this was a possibility, for Clermont are capable of smashing anyone, anywhere. But not even Baxter imagined conceding 36 unanswered points in the space of 40 gruesome minutes.
"We went a bit soft just after the interval and when you do that against this kind of opposition, I suppose this is what happens," Baxter said. "The way Clermont played after the interval – it was a big step up from Premiership rugby, if I'm being honest. In a way, I'd have been disappointed if they hadn't performed as they did. This is the Heineken Cup: the strongest teams are meant to be bloody good. What do we do now? We sit down and go through things as we always do, win or lose. We learn the lessons and go again."
In Exeter's defence, which is more than the Devonians offered after reaching the break a couple of points to the good at 12-10, the indignities suffered in the final dozen minutes were the result of events beyond their control – an act of God on high, rather than the acts of gods in rugby shirts. Having withdrawn scurryingly effective scrum-half Haydn Thomas for Will Chudley on the hour, Exeter were hit hard when Chudley was hurt in an aerial contest with Clermont full-back Lee Byrne. His departure left the home side with a centre at scrum-half and a substitute lock in midfield.
That lock was Ali Muldowney and his direct opponent was the mesmerising Fofana. It would have been a challenge for any 18 stone forward: why not ask Muffin the Mule to keep pace with Frankel while we're at it? Within three minutes of this desperate positional reorganisation, Fofana created a try for Sitiveni Sivivatu, the All Black wing. Two minutes later, he bagged one himself, running in from 60 metres. Such was the one-sidedness of it all, it would have been a seismic shock had Napolioni Nalaga, a Fijian-like Sivivatu and almost as dangerous, not wrapped things up at the last knockings with yet another five-pointer.
"There's not much you can do against a team like Clermont when you end up in the kind of shape we found ourselves in," acknowledged Baxter. "What concerned me more was the 10 minutes or so after the restart. It was then that they got away from us."
If the coach was justified in feeling aggrieved at Fofana's first try on 48 minutes - having slipped away from Tom Johnson's mistimed tackle on the left touchline, the centre slipped into touch en route to the line – there was no disputing Bonnaire's similarly tight finish in the opposite corner three minutes later. Indeed, there was no disputing anything Bonnaire did. The hard-bitten flanker was Clermont's best player when Exeter were in the game, and among their best when the home side were out of it. You can take a man out of an international side – he retired from Test rugby last season – but you cannot take the international out of the man.
Scorers: Exeter: Penalties Steenson 4. Clermont Auvergne: Tries Nalaga 2, Fofana 2, Bonnaire, Sivivatu. Conversions Parra 3, Skrela 2. Penalties Parra 2. Exeter L Arscott; I Whitten, P Dollman, J Shoemark (S Naqelevuki 54), M Jess; G Steenson (I Mieres 62), H Thomas (W Chudley 59, B Moon 68); B Sturgess, S Alcott (C Whitehead ht), C Rimmer (C Budgen 34-ht and 75), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (A Muldowney 62), T Johnson (D Welch 62), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter. Clermont Auvergne L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt, B Stanley 59), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James (D Skrela 66), M Parra (L Radosavljevic 72); T Domingo (V Debaty 46), B Kayser (T Paulo 59), D Zirakashvili (D Kotze 62), J Cudmore (L Jacquet 68), J Pierre, G Vosloo (E Vermeulen 27), J Bonnaire, D Chouly. Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).
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