Exeter Chiefs booked their spot in the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals in dramatic circumstances and head coach Rob Baxter admits it is a big step forward for the club.
The Chiefs have never reached that stage before and began the day with a steep hill to climb, sitting third in Pool 2 behind Ospreys and last year’s finalists Clermont Auvergne.
However, with Clermont losing to Bordeaux-Begles and Exeter beating the Ospreys, all four sides were at one point sat on 16 points with time running out.
Thomas Waldrom and Tom James grabbed two tries apiece for the Chiefs, after Kai Horstmann had opened the scoring, and went on to win 33-17.
And that proved to be just enough – Clermont had sat above Exeter until the dying stages, when Bordeaux-Begles denied them a losing bonus point and Baxter’s side crept to the top and into the last eight.
“It has been an incredible finish to the competition for us,” said Baxter. “I can’t quite believe it has worked out like that.
“I suppose it shows that if you win your home games in your European pool, you’re always in with a shout.
“It feels like a big step forward for us to win a Champions Cup pool and get through to the quarter-finals.
“I would like to say this was a planned performance and that we rested up the guys knowing it was all going to come down to this but the truth is it has come as a little bit of a surprise to me.”
Leicester Tigers are also in the last eight – with a home tie to boot – but they couldn’t finish the pool stage unbeaten, slipping to a 36-21 defeat to Stade Francais.
Manu Tuilagi continued his return from injury by opening the scoring in the French capital, but three Stade tries ensured Leicester went into the break behind.
They fought back and Dom Barrow and Harry Thacker each crossed over as the Tigers moved to within touching distance of their hosts.
However, the French side had more riding on the game – Leicester having already safely secured a home quarter-final – and it showed as they finished strongly, securing maximum points and joining their Aviva Premiership Rugby visitors in the knockout stage.
Stade Francais 36 Leicester Tigers 21
Tries: Plisson, Vuidarvuwalu, Slimani, Lakafia, Doumayru
Conversions: Plisson 4
Tries: Tuilagi, Barrow, Thacker
Conversions: Burns, Bell 2
Referee: George Clancy (Ire)
Exeter Chiefs 33 Ospreys 17
Tries: Horstmann, Waldrom 2, Short 2
Conversions: Steenson 3, Hooley
Tries: Dirksen, Penalty
Conversions: Biggar 2
Referee: Jerome Garces (Fra)