There is an incredibly unique feel to this weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup final, with the two finalists never having met in European competition before. Not since 2012/13 have we seen a final in which the participants had no head-to-head history in the competition, although on that occasion the two finalists – Toulon and Clermont – were more than familiar with each other from their many domestic clashes. Leicester’s victory over Munster in 2001/02 was the last time the two finalists were just as unfamiliar to each other as the Chiefs and Racing.
Although it will be a new experience facing each other, Exeter and Racing do have plenty of recent experience of playing in finals. Both have won the play-offs in their respective league competitions and both have suffered heartbreak at the final hurdle – Exeter being denied in three of the last four Premiership finals by Saracens, while Racing succumbed to the same opponent in the 2015/16 European final before losing out to Leinster in the same competition two years later.
Undoubtedly though, Exeter and Racing have been two of the best sides in Europe this season, but which areas have they excelled in particular?
For both sides, simply putting points on the board has been a real strength, with Exeter and Racing being two of the top scorers this season. The Chiefs sit behind only Clermont in terms of average points scored, while Leinster are the only side who have pipped them when it comes to crossing the try line.
Exeter’s game has been hugely efficient – they rarely relinquish possession cheaply, conceding just 10 turnovers on average this season, the best rate of any team. This has allowed them to grind down their opponents and often leads to points once they get inside the opposition 22 – their average of 3.2 points per 22 entry is better than any other side in the competition.
The Chiefs’ efficiency hasn’t just come in general play, they’ve also been clinical from the kicking tee, slotting an incredible 93% of their shots at goal.
Racing’s game has been high-scoring too – they rank third for points scored per game and fourth for tries per game. Much of that has stemmed from their ability with ball in hand. They’ve averaged the third-most defenders beaten and averaged the second-most metres gained per carry, sitting fractionally below fellow TOP 14 side Clermont. This has all added up to the Parisian side recording the best gainline success rate in the Heineken Champions Cup this season and that ability to constantly progress downfield has yielded plenty of points and tries.
Diving more specifically into the tries scored by this season’s finalists, there is a contrasting pattern in how, where, and when, their tries originate.
Try Times and Range: Heineken Champions Cup 2020
|Team||Q1||Q2||Q3||Q4||Own Half||Mid-Range||Opp 22|
The periods before and after halftime are often crucial in rugby. A score before the break can change the complexion of the coaches’ team talk while scoring early in the second half can swing the momentum in your favour for the remainder of the game. It is in these moments that both Exeter and Racing 92 have excelled, with the Parisians crossing the try line on 11 occasions in the 20 minutes before the break, while the Chiefs have scored 12 tries in the quarter after half-time.
There has been a distinct contrast in the range from which Exeter and Racing have begun their try-scoring sequences. 21 of the Chiefs’ 34 tries have seen the first phase of possession begin inside their opponents 22 – more than any other side – with Rob Baxter’s men determined to come away with five or seven points rather than three once they’ve made it deep into their opponents’ territory.
This is highlighted further by the fact that they’ve scored seven tries from tap penalties (all of which have started within the opposition 22), over three times as many as any other club this season. It is a sensible tactic. Kicking to the corner creates the risk of losing a lineout, while it also allows the defensive line to reset, whereas a quickly taken tapped penalty generally leads to a few easy metres and a scrambling defence. It’s certainly no anomaly either, the Chiefs have scored 18 tries from tap penalties in the Premiership in 2019/20, 10 more than the next best team.
Racing 92, in contrast, have shown a real desire to attack from anywhere in the Heineken Champions Cup this season, crossing for eight tries from sequences beginning inside their own half – a competition leading tally in 2019/20. It is no surprise that they’ve scored so many tries from deep, particularly with a backline filled with such pace, power, and flair. Their ability to attack from deep is also highlighted in their tally of seven tries originating from kick returns, the most of any club this season, and will ensure that any loose kicks from the Chiefs will be capitalised on.
European finals are often tight, cagey affairs, which can be decided by one moment of magic and Exeter and Racing 92 have teams littered with stars who could swing the contest in their side’s favour.
Racing 92’s Virimi Vakatawa has been one of the standout players in 2019/20 and has been electric with ball in hand, beating 48 defenders in total this season. Not only is that tally the most in the competition, but it is also 19 more than the next best player and just four shy of Cheslin Kolbe’s total of 52 from 2018/19 which stands as the highest tally in a Heineken Champions Cup campaign since the competition rebranded in 2014/15. The France international also tops the clean break charts and sits third for metres gained this season.
Exeter though, can boast the top try scorer in the Heineken Champions Cup this season, with Sam Simmonds crossing seven times in his seven games, while he also sits in the top three forwards this season for carries, metres and defenders beaten.
However, it is Sam’s younger brother Joe who is involved in one of the key head to heads, as he’s set to line up against arguably one of the most in-form fly-halves in the world, Finn Russell.
The 23-year-old Exeter fly-half is the second-top point scorer this season, crossing the try line twice and knocking over a further 74 points from the tee. His form with the boot has been sensational, slotting a staggering 34 of 36 attempted kicks for a success rate of 94%, the best rate of anyone to attempt more than five shots at goal.
While Finn Russell doesn’t generally kick for goal for Racing 92, he too has been in fine form with the boot, having assisted three tries this season from kicks – Camille Lopez (4) is the only other player to have managed that more than once this campaign.
Overall, Russell has assisted seven tries in Europe this season, more than any other player, showcasing his creative ability. Simmonds too has shown great inventiveness – he has made 10 passes that have directly led to clean breaks in the competition this season, two more than any other player and three more than his opposite number this weekend.
Saturday’s final is sure to be a game of fine margins and it will be no surprise if the game is won by a moment of genius from Finn Russell, or via the nerveless goal kicking of Joe Simmonds.
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