Thursday 21 November 2019 8:15 pm

Exeter Chiefs are underdogs no longer – they must step up and end their European hoodoo in the Champions Cup

This season is a big one for Exeter Chiefs. They are no longer an up-and-coming side who can rely on their underdog status to temper ambition. 

Saracens’ 35-point deduction in the Premiership means they are hindered both domestically and in the Champions Cup and Exeter really should be the team to benefit.  

Understandably, the Chiefs have been one of the most vociferous clubs in condemning Sarries’ breach of the salary cap.

Read more: Why Leicester Tigers are struggling once more

Exeter won their only Premiership title in 2017, and having finished runner-up to Saracens in 2016, 2018 and 2019 their reaction to the news was always going to be strong.

Now Saracens have accepted their punishment it is time for Exeter to step up and come of age, especially in Europe where they have struggled previously.

Finding a balance

Rob Baxter’s side have made the quarter-finals only once in their last six European campaigns, but have got class all over the pitch and need to improve upon their record.

A back line which contains Nic White, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell and Stuart Hogg is world-class and it is about time they seized the moment in Europe. Their 31-12 win away to La Rochelle last weekend was a good start.

Exeter have a settled squad and their domestic success has been built upon a powerful, attritional game plan which allowed them to bully sides, but they also need to find a balance which can showcase the talent they have. 

Exeter head coach Rob Baxter
Exeter head coach Rob Baxter has been critical of Saracens’ salary cap breach (via Getty Images)

Having landed in Pool 2 alongside La Rochelle, Sale and this weekend’s opponents Glasgow, reaching the knock-out stages should be the bare minimum expected this season.

If they were to make their mark in the competition it would undoubtedly help push some of their English players towards international recognition. 

The likes of Sam Simmonds, Dom Armand and Matt Kvesic are good players week in, week out in the Premiership, but to elevate yourself you need to perform in Europe, where the standard is higher, and make yourself impossible to ignore. 

Saints on the up

Elsewhere in the competition this weekend, Northampton travel to Italy to face Benetton on the back of their 25-14 victory over Lyon.

Saints look to me to be a team going in the right direction. They made inroads while the World Cup was ongoing, winning three of their four games to go second in the Premiership.

Northampton fly-half Dan Biggar
Northampton fly-half Dan Biggar starred in their win over Lyon last weekend (via Getty Images)

Now that most sides are back to full strength I think we will start to see just how good Northampton really are. They are clearly well-coached by Chris Boyd, who I think gives them an edge they perhaps didn’t have under his predecessor Jim Mallinder.

Dan Biggar showed just what a shrewd signing he was last week against Lyon. Previous No10 Stephen Myler is a solid player, but Biggar brings that international class. He’s not creative, like George Ford for example, but is brilliant under a high ball, tough and plays the percentages well.

Northampton are a big club, with a demanding fanbase and should be winning trophies. After an encouraging campaign last year they could go one better this time.

Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is a director within the real estate & construction team at PwC and founder of Optimist Performance. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn