Henry Slade puts World Cup final heartache behind him as Exeter conquer Europe

Henry Slade had seen it all before but this time felt different. Very different.

The podium being hastily built on halfway, the trophy placed on its stand, the confetti guns locked and loaded ready to shower the winners.

In Japan he stood and watched South Africa lift the World Cup feeling a pain he thought would last a lifetime.

Eleven months on it was him drenched in bubbly, him wearing the medal. Exeter didn’t trudge disconsolately past the European Champions Cup, they picked it up and took it home.

“It’s been an unreal year,” said the England centre. “That World Cup final was an unbelievable experience but a massive disappointment.

Siya Kolisi and his South Africa team lift the World Cup in Yokohama…

…watched by a beaten and forlorn England team

“I was thinking before this game that winning here would make me feel way better. It does. It is the next best thing.”

That night in Yokohama he was the player tackled for the turnover which brought the try which sealed England’s fate. At Ashton Gate in Bristol the crucial score belonged to him.

“I think back to being a kid watching this tournament and wanting to be in it one day,” added Slade, after Exeter held on with 14 men to complete a fairy tale rise from junior rugby to European champions.

Slade makes ground despite attention from Teddy Iribaren…

…and scoring to put Exeter 28-17 ahead on 46 minutes

“To go and win it is such a special feeling. We’ve had so much disappointment in finals in the last few years.”

In the Premiership showpiece yes, beaten three times in four years, but in Europe this was their first time beyond the quarter-finals, only their 46th match ever in the tournament.

Compare that to the previous two winners. Saracens boast 106 appearances, Leinster 175.

Sam and Joe Simmonds celebrate Slade’s second half try

No wonder Sam Simmonds, Europe’s top try scorer in this longest season, looked overwhelmed to be named player of the year.

“This just doesn’t happen to people like us,” he said, wrapping an arm round his captain and man-of-the-match, younger brother Joe.

They were the lucky two, siblings able to share their greatest rugby day. Covid restrictions put paid to the rest.

Slade, Jack Yeandle, Alec Hepburn, Ben Moon and Gareth Steenson with trophy

Luke Cowan-Dickie, scorer of Exeter’s first try, passes out of a tackle

“Not having our families here to share such an achievement was the cruellest thing,” said boss Rob Baxter, who emerged from an emotional call with wife Jo to admit “I’m a bit all over the place”.

At times so were his team. Having bossed the first quarter to lead 14-0 they let Finn Russell into the contest and nearly paid for it.

Twice he put Simon Zebo in for tries but his buccaneering ways come with risk as well as reward and when he chanced his arm once too often Jack Nowell pounced to intercept and release Slade for his redemption try.

Finn Russell fumbles a pass as Racing fall 14-0 behind early on

Jonny Hill, who had a huge game, is tackled by Camille Chat

Exeter still had a storm to weather, as Racing pulled back to within a point with eight minutes left and Thomas Francis in the bin.

But having spent all but 10 years in the lower leagues they weren’t now about to relinquish club rugby’s biggest prize, sealing victory with captain Joe’s last-gasp kick.

EXETER – Tries: Cowan-Dickie, S Simmonds, Williams, Slade. Cons: J Simmonds 4. Pen: J Simmonds.

RACING – Tries: Zebo 2, Imhoff, Chat. Cons: Russell, Machenaud. Pen: Machenaud.

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