I’ve finally done it!
I have tasted the Sandy Park experience travelling into Devon to watch the Exeter Chiefs take on the reigning Heineken Cup holders Toulon.
Whilst we continue to wait in Cornwall for the Stadium to be built it is understandable that for some the “here and now” is Sandy Park and the Exeter Chiefs.
Well what a cracking game and what a cracking atmosphere!
The game flew by and by the end I was totally exhausted with the drama of it all with Toulon’s experience prevailing, just, 14-9.
From the minute’s silence in respect of Nelson Mandela, and what a privilege to share such a moment with some great Springbok players, to Toulon lock Ali Williams outrageous flick pass to prop Florian Fresia to set up what proved to be the only try of the game, Chief’s Jack Nowell’s lunge for the corner along with an impressive performance for Toulon from Mathieu Bastareaud, replacement fly-half for Chiefs Henry Slade’s mature performance against his idol at fly-half, the crowd’s chorus of “We want Jonny” as Matt Giteau lined up a vital kick for the visitors………I could go on and on!
After the game I was able to listen in to Jonny Wilkinson’s post match comments to the press pack and he was full of praise for the Exeter’s side performance. He said. “”It was a tough game, but we expected that,” said the 34-year-old playmaker. “It’s fabulous to see the way Exeter are playing the game and the strength that they are able to compete and beat so many teams.
“I think last year a lot of people mentioned when they played Clermont what a battle they put up, but it’s no longer about that for them. These guys are beating teams day in, day out and playing great rugby in doing that. It’s a magic thing for English rugby and an example for people to follow. What they are showing for 1 to 15, they’ve guys with skills and playing in that manner, it’s just great and something to learn from.
“As a team I know we will learn from what they are doing and we grow stronger because the way they play is hard to play against. It’s great for us, great for Europe and great for what they are doing down here. Coming here today, it’s a fabulous place, fabulous support and long may it continue.”
And with the two teams set to resume Heineken Cup battle again this weekend, Wilkinson is expecting another stiff examination from Rob Baxter’s side on home soil.
“We know we have to prepare damn well to play against them,” said Wilkinson, who was named European Player of the Year last season. “We’ve seen first hand today what the Chiefs are capable of and maybe if a few ball didn’t go down or the rub of the green went slightly different, we know we would have been in a very different situation right now.
“Right now we’ll take each game as it comes, but these guys will be incredibly tough next week. Then whoever they face after that, it’s impossible to say who is going to qualify from this group. Like I said, today could easily have been a different story, so I wouldn’t like to be doing this again.
And Wilkinson confirmed that it was his decision to asked Matt Giteau to take the vital penalty kick which nudged Toulon back into the lead. “A good one I thought! The way I was kicking I had to make that call, despite the fact that I had prepared well all week and I felt fabulous coming in to the game, it just didn’t happen for me today. The decision to carry on (kicking) would have been totally selfish. Matt and other players were itching to get involved so a good call.”
I hope that Premiership Rugby know what they are doing when they turn their back on the Heineken Cup next season. This has been, and continues to be a fantastic tournament, as witnessed by some of the results this weekend. What price Connacht’s 16-14 win at Toulouse?
European weekends have become such a part of the rugby calendar and the thought of losing them fills a mere supporter like myself with utter depression and despair of those “running the game”!
I spent time on Saturday talking to supporters and members of the press who had travelled over from France and they were extremely complimentary of the way they had been looked after by Exeter for the game.
Supporters were taken on tours of the city, etc…etc…and had a wonderful stay.
The press, expertly looked after by the media and communications manager at Exeter Chiefs, Mark Stevens, spoke highly of the way the club accommodated their requirements, something not always found at other clubs!
All part and parcel of extending the hand of rugby friendship. In short how it should be and just a small example of how Exeter Chiefs are getting things right not just on the pitch but off it too.
Needless to say I look forward to my next trip to Sandy Park and seeing more of Jack Nowell Matt Jess et al.