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Half Mag / Half Zine

In theory this should have been a historic occasion: a top South African provincial side heading over the equator to test themselves in one of England’s most evocative venues. Despite the festive bonanza of tries, though, even Exeter’s fans left feeling slightly empty, having witnessed another contest that makes it difficult to hold up the Champions Cup as a club tournament without equal.

The Bulls, perfectly understandably, left 21 players at home for their United Rugby Championship game against the Stormers in Cape Town this Friday. As their coach, Jake White, has made clear, there is no way the same group of players can compete fully in the URC, the Champions Cup and the Currie Cup and, selection-wise, something had to give.

The result was a weakened visiting team and a Devon demolition job, with Luke Cowan-Dickie the most prominent wrecking-ball. The England hooker, who is bound for Montpellier at the end of the season, was substituted after only 45 minutes but by that stage already had a close-range hat-trick of tries to his name. Exeter, despite being down to 13 players by the end with man of the match Dave Ewers in the sin-bin, finished with six tries in all to claim their second successive pool win.

The constantly influential Ewers was also among the scorers, as was the lively Henry Slade. Perhaps Chiefs’ most eyecatching contribution, though, came from their 20-year-old Wales international forward Dafydd Jenkins, whose range of skills and energy levels continue to impress. His teammate Christ Tshiunza is also making excellent strides in the back row, – it may not be long before they start calling Jenkins “The Almighty” on the basis he’s even better than Christ.

Sam Simmonds, another heading for Montpellier in the summer, was a dynamic presence and the net effect blew the Bulls away from a relatively early stage. The visitors did manage one nice early try, a cracker from the winger Stravino Jacobs who burst late into the line, but otherwise it was a familiar story of slick Chiefs approach work and subsequent close-quarters power.

They were 32-7 up with a bonus point in the bag by half-time and, aside from a late flurry which yielded a score for the centre Chris Smith, the Bulls were barely at the auction. Their trek to the frozen north, via Doha, had taken them around 26 hours and conditions could scarcely have been more alien compared with those they left behind them in Pretoria.

While altitude is less of a factor in Exeter, it is a massive ask to expect any team to adapt to a 30-degree temperature shift and adjust their gameplan accordingly. The same will be true for Exeter in Loftus Versveld next month but by then victory may not be quite such an urgent priority. Two wins from four games should be enough to propel teams into the last 16 and Chiefs could now lose in South Africa and still progress from Pool A via their final fixture at home to Castres.

Either way, question marks hang over the tournament’s current format, with Gloucester’s heavy defeat at Leinster having made it all but impossible for another team to top Pool A ahead of the Irish heavyweights. “The people who organise this competition will also have to look at how they can make it more travel-friendly,” said White, insisting he had had no realistic option other than to rest some of his key players for the Stormers game.

At least Exeter, European champions in 2020, are now back in charge of their own destiny. “We are obviously in a pleasing position,” said the head coach, Ali Hepher. “Coming off the back of an emotional performance last week, I am pleased with how the boys rocked up and got the job done. To get an away bonus point last week, and to back it up today, was important.”

Hepher also insisted Exeter would be taking their strongest available side to South Africa for the return fixture, regardless of what other clubs are doing. “We view this competition very highly and the players worked very hard last season to get into it. We want to give the guys the experiences they deserve, pitching themselves against the best teams in the world. We have a high regard for the competition and we want to be successful in it.”