As the streamers filled the air and flamethrowers lit up the night sky, it was a fitting end to Exeter’s fairytale that two local lads lifted the trophy.
Rob Baxter watched on with glazed eyes as Jack Yeandle and Joe Simmonds hoisted the Champions Cup above their heads.
Almost a decade after winning promotion from the second division of English rugby, Exeter completed their long and unpredictable journey from the corners of Devon to the summit of Europe.
Exeter can now complete a domestic and European double after winning the Champions Cup
The Chiefs took on French side Racing 92 met at Ashton Gate in the final of the Champions Cup
The Premiership outfit were bidding to be crowned the champions of Europe for the first time
This could be the start of a new era of dominance and, given the scale of their achievement, it is surely a matter of time before a statue of Baxter is erected outside Sandy Park.
Ever since he changed the numbers on the club’s scoreboard as a child, Baxter’s name has been synonymous with their rise through the ranks – and he is now on course to lead his side to a famous double.
Half an hour after the final whistle, Jack Nowell was still sitting in the middle of the pitch, embracing the moment. Like his team-mates, the winger fought for every inch as the 14-men Chiefs held on for the narrowest of victories.
‘It’s an incredible story for these guys and an incredible story for the club,’ said Baxter. ‘It’ll be a game I remember for a long time. That last 10 minutes seemed to go on forever but we saw it out. It looks like it was meant to be.
Ollie Devoto was left ecstatic after a thrilling second half in which Racing fought back fiercely
Racing had built up in a bio-secure bubble in Corsica following several positive Covid-19 tests
‘The guys have made a lot of sacrifice to get through this stage and haven’t had their friends and support to see them in the biggest game of their lives. There’s a nice symmetry to a lot of things that have happened today.
‘Some are crying, delighted – some can hardly talk and some are over the moon. That’s what rugby is about and we got the emotions right.’
The Chiefs have never forgotten their roots. Of their 31 points, 26 were scored by academy products.
They have perfected their system through years of trial and error and the game played out like a contest between men and machines. It was the footloose and fancy-free Parisians against Exeter’s system of bone-crushing cogs.
The image before kick off summed up the contrasts in approach. While Exeter underwent coordinated team stretches before kick-off, Finn Russell was down the other end of the pitch juggling three rugby balls.
Luke Cowan-Dickie (right) scores as the Chiefs claim an early lead against their depleted rivals
Referee Nigel Owens (fourth from right) awards Exeter a second try, scored by Sam Simmonds
Racing practised no-look passes and emerged for kick-off wearing pink bow ties. But the Chiefs dagger was sharper than any Parisian swagger.
In fact, there were early moments when Racing played as if they had just stumbled out of a late night dinner party.
Their scrum-half, Teddy iribaren, played with fire in the early exchanges. He missed touch with an early penalty and, a couple of minutes later, attempted to throw a quick lineout to himself.
Nowell snared the No 9 and forced a penalty. Exeter kicked to the corner and the cogs started turning. Jonny Gray claimed an attacking lineout and, inch by inch, they drove forward for Luke Cowan Dickie to score the opening try.
Simon Zebo and Juan Imhoff replied in a gripping final as Racing threatened to turn the tide
A group of travelling French reserves tried to fire up their team with a screeching cacophony of air horns, but the squeeze continued.
Racing played with fire in their own 22 and Exeter turned up with a giant pail of water. Jonny Hill’s linespeed forced Russell to fumble the ball in his in-goal area and Exeter built pressure from the scrum. Sam Simmonds added his side’s second before the end of the first quarter.
For 20 minutes, Exeter managed to shackle Russell’s attaking instincts. Stuart Hogg shadowed the fly-haf behind the defensive line to leave no space for his dangerous chip kicks, with defenders shouting ‘Get Russell!’ to cut down his time on the ball.
Attempting to nullify Russell’s link with Virimi Vakatawa, Exeter left space out wide and Russell threw an inch-perfect miss pass to Simon Zebo, who found space to score on the right wing.
Gareth Steenson enjoys a moment of glory with the trophy after Exeter’s dramatic final victory
From the front-row, Eddy Ben Arous and George Henri Colombe caused problems at the breakdown. They stole possession and disrupted Exeter’s rhythm.
Russell spread the ball from touchline to touchline, using stocky hooker Camille Chat to smash over the gain line. And Juan Imhoff was on hand to score his side’s second, throwing a dummy at the base of the ruck before sniping under the posts.
But the comeback was nipped in the bud.
Harry Williams drove over to score before half time, with the Chiefs once again showing their attacking potency from five metres out.
Racing replaced Iribaren with Maxime Machenaud at half time and began the second half with more direction.
Imhoff broke down the left following an interception, but was hauled down by a high tackle from Henry Slade. They remained camped in Chiefs territory, before Zebo collected another Russell pass to score another try down the right wing.
It seemed like the occasion had got into Exeter heads. They lost their edge and handed back possession through sloppy errors.
Chiefs hooker Jack Yeandle (centre) downs a well-earned beer alongside the victorious squad
Although Slade edged his side back after Nowell intercepted a Russell pass, the Parisians clawed their way back to 28-17 to set up a grandstand finish. Camille Chat drove over from a lineout, before Maxime Machenaud kicked a penalty.
Tomas Francis was sinbinned for a knock on in the 72nd minute and a late Racing victory seemed inevitable.
They built up 19 phases on the Chiefs tryline but were turned over by Sam Hidalgo Clyne. And Simmonds kicked a late penalty to round off the night, which will live long in Exeter memory.