Exeter Chiefs were rewarded for a blistering start and heroic defence as they won the European Champions Cup for the first time with a thrilling 31-27 win over Racing 92.

The Chiefs charged into a 14-point lead less than midway through the first half of a pulsating final at Ashton Gate, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds going over.

Harry Williams added a third try just before half-time after Simon Zebo and Juan Imhoff crossed at the other end in a breathless contest in Bristol.

Zebo finished for a second time, but a poor pass from Finn Russell - who laid on both scores for the Irish winger - resulted in a Henry Slade try that gave Exeter breathing space. 

Racing roared back again, Camille Chat touching down and Maxime Machenaud - who hit the post with one conversion attempt - reducing Exeter's lead to only a point with a penalty.

Exeter were a man down after Tomas Francis' yellow card eight minutes from time, but they defended for their lives and Joe Simmonds took his tally to 11 points with the last kick of the game.

The Chiefs can complete an incredible double if they win the Premiership next weekend a decade after they were promoted to the top flight for the first time, while Racing have now been runners-up in three of the past four years as their wait to win the trophy goes on.

Exeter made a storming start with the forwards dominating, Cowan-Dickie crashing over when Racing were unable to stop a driving maul eight minutes in and Sam Simmonds crossing from short range.

Joe Simmonds converted both scores, but after looking shellshocked early on, the Top 14 heavyweights came to life and Russell fed Zebo for his first score in the corner.

The clinical Imhoff caught Exeter out with a show-and-go, but Rob Baxter's side led 21-12 at half-time after Williams scored just before the break follow a sustained spell of pressure.

Racing responded following the interval, Zebo capitalising on slack defending by bouncing off a tackle and spinning to touch down, having taken another pass from Russell, but Machenaud's conversion attempt hit the upright.

Slade was somewhat fortunate not to make contact with Imhoff's head in a tackle and he capitalised by going under the posts after Russell's poor pass was intercepted by Jack Nowell.

Racing hit back again, powerful Chat ploughing over following a driving maul and Machenaud adding the extras, then cutting the gap to a point with a penalty after 64 minutes.

Francis was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on, but Exeter held on and Joe Simmonds had the final say to make it an English European double after Bristol Bears beat Toulon in the Challenge Cup final on Friday.

Racing 92 or Exeter Chiefs will be crowned champions of Europe for the first time after beating defending champions Saracens and Toulouse respectively on Saturday.

Juan Imhoff's brilliant late try secured a 19-15 victory for Racing in the first semi-final at La Defense Arena, ending Sarries' hopes of winning the Champions Cup for the fourth time in five seasons.

Five Alex Goode penalties gave Saracens – relegated from the Premiership for salary-cap breaches – a lead of six points with 13 minutes to go in Paris.

Maxime Machenaud struck Racing's fourth penalty of the game following three from Teddy Iribaren to reduce the deficit and Imhoff raced away to score four minutes from time after taking a pass from Virimi Vakatawa, who was picked out by a clever Finn Russell kick.

Machenaud converted and the 2016 and 2018 runners-up held on to dump out Sarries, who lost captain Brad Barritt to injury in the final quarter of a gripping contest.

Exeter will play Racing in their first Champions Cup final on October 17 at Ashton Gate, Bristol after defeating Toulouse 28-18.

The Chiefs kept their Premiership and Champions Cup double dreams alive with a powerful performance, Harry Williams scoring two of their four tries at Sandy Park.

Joe Simmonds scored a try and eight points from the tee, while his brother Sam also crossed to deny four-time European champions a place in an all-Top 14 showdown.

Alban Placines and Matthis Lebel scored Toulouse's tries, the latter coming when the damage had already been done.

Exeter Chiefs will face Toulouse in the European Champions Cup semi-finals after overcoming fellow Premiership side Northampton Saints.

The Chiefs reached the last four of the Champions Cup for the first time in their history thanks to a 38-15 triumph at Sandy Park on Sunday.

It was a scoreline that did not reflect how close the encounter was at one stage, with Northampton – who went ahead through Dan Biggar's early penalty – only four points behind at half-time.

However, second-half tries from Jack Nowell, Jonny Hill and Jacques Vermeulen, who also went over in the first half, put Exeter out of sight.

Sandy Park will be the venue for Exeter's semi-final on Saturday, as they take on Toulouse, who comfortably dispatched Ulster 36-8 at Stade Ernest Wallon.

Cheslin Kolbe was the star, with the South Africa wing scoring twice in a dominant display.

Kolbe grabbed both of his tries during the first half, with Antoine Dupont, Pita Ahki and Thomas Ramos getting in on the act after the interval, before John Cooney got a late consolation for Ulster.

Saracens were spurred on by the prospect of "another week together" after holding off a fightback from Leinster to reach the European Champions Cup semi-finals.

The star-studded squad Sarries have assembled will be hit by departures at the end of the campaign after they were administratively relegated from the Premiership for salary cap breaches.

However, the holders appear determined to go out on a high in European competition and a dominant first half was enough for them to defeat the Pro14 champions 25-17.

They led 22-3 at half-time, Alex Goode kicking three penalties and converting his own try while Elliot Daly added another pair of three-pointers.

Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour crossed for Leinster in the second half to narrow the gap to five points, but Saracens held on and Goode's late penalty clinched victory.

Captain Brad Barritt - who will leave the club at the end of the season - said: "It was the prospect of having another week together.

"We know after this season there will be a slightly different-looking squad and we owed it to ourselves to have a big game. We showed a huge amount of character playing in games that don't mean anything.

"Today was about fighting for something tangible. We owed it to ourselves to represent the Saracens badge and I couldn't be more proud of my team."

Saturday's other quarter-final saw Racing 92 claim victory over Top 14 rivals Clermont Auvergne.

Racing led 24-8 at half-time, with six penalties from Teddy Iribaren and tries from Louis Dupichot and Francois Trinh-Duc key to the 36-27 success they claimed despite a spirited second-half showing from Clermont.

The European Champions Cup has been expanded to include 24 teams and the 2020-21 Challenge Cup format has also been altered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) on Wednesday announced that there will be an additional four clubs in Europe's premier club competition, with home and away quarter-finals played for the first time.

There will be two pools of 12 teams - eight apiece from the Premiership, Pro14 and Top 14 - and four rounds of matches, with no teams from the same league coming up against each other in the group stage.

The changes for the competition, which ends with a final in Marseille on May 22, have been made on an exceptional basis amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis.

Fourteen clubs will compete in the Challenge Cup - six from the Top 14, four from the Premiership and four Pro14 sides - and play four rounds of matches in a single pool, again not facing teams from their own country.

There will be a round of 16 before the quarter-finals and the final will take place in Marseille on May 21.

EPCR chairman Simon Halliday said: "With an expanded knockout stage and no repeats of domestic matches during the pool stage, this format creates brand new competitive opportunities for Europe's elite clubs and their fans.

"In this time of change, the Champions Cup with its global stars of the game, its passionate supporters and its unique match-day atmosphere undoubtedly remains The One to Win."

European rugby chiefs are pushing ahead with plans for Marseille to stage the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals, after new dates were revealed on Thursday.

Both competitions had their quarter-finals line-ups confirmed before the coronavirus pandemic forced rugby to be put on hold.

The Premiership is expected to resume in England in August, as is the Pro14 featuring teams from Wales, Scotland, Italy, Ireland and South Africa. France's Top 14 2020-21 season is due to start in September.

There is now clarity on when the delayed European competitions will get back under way, with the quarter-finals to be played across September 18-20 and the semi-finals on September 25-27.

The Champions Cup final will take place on October 17, a day after the Challenge Cup showpiece, said European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR).

New venues for each match may need to be found if teams and supporters are not allowed to travel to the south of France.

An EPCR statement said: "EPCR remains committed to staging the matches in Marseille, however, the situation is under review in light of public gathering and international travel restrictions which might be in place at the time of the finals."

France is due to ease coronavirus restrictions and allow up to 5,000 spectators to attend sporting events from July 11, with the possibility of that number being raised depending on the success of reopening.

Marseille's Stade Velodrome, the venue for each final, can seat over 67,000 fans.

Exeter Chiefs, Northampton Saints, Clermont Auvergne, Racing 92, Leinster, Saracens, Toulouse and Ulster are in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

The remaining Challenge Cup sides are Bordeaux-Begles, Edinburgh, Toulon, Scarlets, Leicester Tigers, Castres, Bristol Bears and Dragons.

Saracens have been assured they will be able to complete their European Champions Cup defence even if they are relegated to the Championship first.

The reigning English and European champions will be demoted from the Premiership to the second tier for next term following salary-cap breaches.

The club were deducted 105 points, guaranteeing their relegation, but have continued to progress in the Champions Cup.

The season's suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic throws up some difficulties, however, as sport is set to return behind closed doors in England before some other European countries.

The Champions Cup may therefore not be concluded until after the next domestic campaign has started in England, with Saracens by then in the Championship.

But European Professional Club Rugby chairman Simon Halliday insists the team's European challenge will not be impacted.

"Saracens have qualified for the quarter-finals and I'll defend their right to complete the Champions Cup campaign no matter what," Halliday said, quoted in the Mirror.

"As long as we can complete the tournament, they should be allowed to participate for as long as they keep on winning."

Saracens have won the Champions Cup in three of the past four seasons and defeated Leinster in the 2018-19 final.

They will face the Irish province again in the last eight of this term's competition.

May 11 is a day that has contrasting FA Cup final fortunes for each side of the Manchester divide.

While for United it was a day to celebrate in 1996 after Alex Ferguson's men defeated the old enemy Liverpool, for City it was one to forget in 2013 as Wigan Athletic pulled off a huge shock.

Arsenal remember the date fondly as they were crowned champions of England 19 years to the day, while just 12 months ago Saracens were standing tall in Europe in what was a familiar story.

Below we take a look at some of the memorable sporting moments from May 11.


1991 – Golden Graham's Gunners lift league title

For the second time in the space of three seasons, Arsenal were crowned champions of England in the 1990-91 campaign.

Some 13 years before Arsene Wenger's 'Invincibles', George Graham's team lost just once and thumped Coventry City 6-1 in their final game of the season in a hectic campaign.

During the season, Tony Adams was jailed for drink-driving and the Gunners were docked two points for their part in a brawl at Manchester United in October 1990.

1996 – Cantona sinks the 'Spice Boys'

There is little love lost in the rivalry between Manchester United and Liverpool but in truth the 1996 FA Cup final was a forgettable game.

Eric Cantona settled the clash at Wembley, shooting through a crowd of players in the 85th minute to complete a league and cup double for the Red Devils.

While the action on the pitch did not live long in the memory, the sight of Liverpool's squad arriving in white Armani suits has lasted the test of time.

The funky attire did little to shelve the 'Spice Boys' moniker that had been given to the Liverpool squad by the British press.

2013 – Watson header sees Latics shock City

Seventeen years later and the blue half of Manchester suffered an upset FA Cup final defeat as City were downed 1-0 by Wigan Athletic.

City's expensively assembled cast were the overwhelming favourites having won the same trophy two years previously and been crowned Premier League champions in 2011-12.

But substitute Ben Watson headed home in the first minute of injury time to leave City – who had Pablo Zabaleta sent off six minutes from the end – little time to muster a response.

Just a couple of days later, City sacked boss Roberto Mancini.

2019 – Sarries reign in Europe again

The past few months have been particularly trying for Saracens, who will be relegated from the Premiership over a breach of salary-cap regulations.

But just 12 months ago, Sarries were celebrating a third European Rugby Champions Cup success in the space of four years thanks for a 20-10 triumph over Leinster.

Massive sporting events do not always live up the occasion.

The boxing world was delivered a reminder of that five years ago as a fight a long time in the making proved a drab affair.

It is the unexpected that often produces the most excitement and that was the case during a 2015-16 Premier League campaign that stands as arguably the most memorable in the division's history.

Here we look back at May 2 in the world of sport.

2009: Pacquiao makes light work of Hatton

"From the ends of the earth to the centre of the ring" was the tagline attached to a light-welterweight title bout billed as the' Battle of East and West'.

With seven seconds left in the second round, Ricky Hatton was indeed in the centre of the ring, on his back having been dumped to the canvas by a thunderous left to the chin from Manny Pacquiao.

The fight marked the last at elite level for Hatton, who finished his career in 2012 with a loss to Vyacheslav Senchenko.

Pacquiao has gone on to secure his legacy as one of the greatest boxers of all time, but his journey has not been without its lows, the biggest of which would come six years later at the same MGM Grand Garden Arena venue...

2009: Leinster-Munster semi-final draws record crowd

Leinster v Munster is regarded as one of the biggest provincial rivalries in world rugby, and it reached new heights as the pair met in the Heineken Cup semi-finals at Croke Park.

A crowd of 82,208, a world-record attendance for a club match, witnessed Leinster secure their place in the final with a 25-6 victory.

They would go on to lift the trophy, beating Leicester Tigers 19-16 at Murrayfield.

2012: Messi breaks European club goals record

Lionel Messi's incredible career has been defined by him shattering records and collecting medals at will.

Eight years ago he bettered a mark that had stood since the 1972-73 season with a hat-trick against Malaga.

The treble took Messi to 68 goals for the 2011-12 season, the most by a single player in a European club season.

Gerd Muller had previously held the record with 67. Messi would go on to stretch his advantage over the Germany great, finishing the campaign with a remarkable 73 goals.

2015: 'Fight of the century' fails to inspire

After years of protracted and tempestuous negotiations, Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather finally agreed to touch gloves in the biggest fight of the 21st century.

The contest did not match the hype surrounding it, however, Mayweather maintaining his unbeaten record in uninspiring fashion.

Pacquiao struggled to land punches on a defensive Mayweather, whose tactical acumen won the day in a fight some dubbed 'Better never than late' in the aftermath.

Mayweather followed up that win with a victory over Andre Berto in September, before coming out of retirement in 2017 to defeat UFC star Conor McGregor and improve to 50-0.

2016: Leicester achieve the impossible

The established order of the Premier League was upset in unbelievable fashion in 2015-16 as 5,000-1 outsiders Leicester City, having narrowly avoided relegation the previous season, clinched the title.

Tottenham had been the Foxes' closest challengers in a year where Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal all struggled for consistency, with Liverpool and Chelsea well off the pace.

However, it was Chelsea who ended Tottenham's hopes and ensured the trophy would head to the King Power Stadium.

Spurs needed to win at Stamford Bridge to keep their hopes alive and led 2-0 thanks to goals from Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.

But Gary Cahill pulled one back and Eden Hazard levelled matters seven minutes from time to spark delirious scenes among the Leicester players watching on TV.

France's Top 14 and the second tier, Pro D2, are to be abandoned for the 2019-20 season with no announcement made on whether champions will be crowned.

Meanwhile, quarter-final matches in the European Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup will not be played until September at the earliest.

Both decisions have come after the French government's move to prohibit sport for the next four months amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Clubs have agreed with the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) to end the Top 14 campaign to ensure next season can start on time, with the move expected to be rubber-stamped by the league's steering committee.

Prior to the abandonment of the Top 14, Bordeaux-Begles were eight points clear of Lyon at the summit as they sought a first title since 1991.

The Top 14 regular season is usually followed by play-offs to determine the eventual champions.

Three of the eight teams in the last eight of the Champions Cup play their domestic rugby in France and, similarly, three of those sides still in the Challenge Cup are Top 14 outfits.

The quarter-final ties were due to be played between April 3-5 but had already been postponed along with the semis and the two finals, which were set to be held in Marseille on May 22 and 23.

European Professional Club Rugby still intends to complete the continental competitions. 

With three rounds of action still to play, the delays are likely to impact the start of next season's Champions and Challenge Cups, which are scheduled to start in October.

The European Champions Cup semi-finals and final have been postponed by European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Matches at the same stages of the Challenge Cup have also been postponed.

The EPCR Board held a conference call on Monday to discuss the move and confirmed their decision on Tuesday.

They remain committed to completing the two competitions despite the COVID-19 outbreak, which has had a devastating impact on global sporting schedules.

But the 2020 finals in Marseille will not take place on May 22 and 23 as scheduled, while the semi-finals originally due to be held across May 1, 2 and 3 will also be moved.

The April quarter-finals had already been postponed and all three of the remaining rounds will be rescheduled in collaboration with the continent's major leagues.

"In making the decision, the board is abiding by the official directives and recommendations of the relevant authorities in its territories to restrict the COVID-19 pandemic," read the EPCR statement.

"In light of the earlier postponement of its quarter-final matches and with fixtures in Europe's professional league competitions currently suspended due to the public health crisis, EPCR believes it necessary to provide as much clarity as possible to all stakeholders regarding the knockout stages of its tournaments.

"To that end, EPCR is working with the leagues and unions to restructure a conclusion to its season as part of a wider rescheduling of the remainder of the season in Europe, with all contingencies underpinned by the requirement to protect the health and welfare of players, club staff, match officials, supporters and the wider rugby community.

"It is planned to reschedule the quarter-final and semi-final matches, as well as the Marseille finals, in line with fixtures in the professional league competitions, subject to advice from government and local authorities."

Fans will be entitled to a refund if they are unable to attend on the rearranged dates.

The Premiership has been suspended for five weeks and the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Premiership Rugby's decision followed new guidance from the United Kingdom government on Monday.

British prime minister Boris Johnson encouraged people to avoid mass gatherings and all "non-essential" travel and contact with others.

"The safety of our fans, players and staff is our first priority, and we would like to wish all of those who are affected our heartfelt best wishes and a very speedy recovery," a Premiership Rugby statement read.

"We'll continue to work closely with DCMS [the Departure for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] and Public Health England, and to follow the advice of medical experts, and work with our clubs to help them to support their own wider communities at this time."

The decision to call off the European rugby season was taken during a conference call on Monday.

It means the matches in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup scheduled for April 3, 4 and 5 will not now go ahead as planned, although organisers hope to rearrange the fixtures for later dates.

In a statement, the board of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) said: "While respecting all further directives by governments and local authorities, EPCR, in conjunction with the relevant leagues and unions, remains committed to trying to find a solution which will enable it to complete the 2019-20 Champions Cup and Challenge Cup tournaments at such a time as that aligns with preventative measures undertaken by an overwhelming majority of sport's governing bodies and tournament organisers in Europe.  

"EPCR's priority is the health and welfare of players and club staff, and an update regarding the knockout stages of the tournaments will be communicated to all stakeholders as soon as practicable."

Saracens have been fined €50,000 for fielding Titi Lamositele against Racing 92 without a valid work permit but the holders will remain in the European Champions Cup.

There were reports that Sarries could be thrown out of the competition after European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) brought a misconduct complaint against them.

The champions of Europe and England faced an independent disciplinary hearing in London on Friday as a result of Lamositele's appearance in a crunch Pool 4 clash with Racing last month, which took place a day after his documentation expired.

United States prop Lamositele came off the bench in a crucial 27-24 win at Allianz Park on January 19 but may have been ineligible due to what EPCR described as "an inadvertent administrative error on behalf of the club".

A tweet from the Champions Cup revealed that the London club have been fined €50,000, half of which is suspended until the end of the 2020/21 season.

Sarries will be relegated from the Premiership at the end of the season for breaching salary-cap regulations but could still retain the Champions Cup.

The victory over Racing saw them through to the quarter-finals, with a showdown against Leinster to come on April 4 in a repeat of last season's final.

Saracens could face more punishment after Titi Lamositele played in a crucial European Champions Cup victory over Racing 92 last month a day after his work permit expired.

The European and English champions are already facing relegation from the Premiership at the end of the season for breaching salary-cap regulations.

Sarries will face an independent disciplinary committee on Friday after European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) brought a misconduct complaint against them.

Lamositele came off the bench in a 27-24 win over Racing on January 19, but may have been ineligible due to what EPCR described as "an inadvertent administrative error on behalf of the club".

An independent disciplinary committee consisting of Roger Morris, Pamela Woodman and Jean-Noel Couraud will hear the misconduct complaint in London.

The London club face Leinster in the quarter-finals at the Aviva Stadium on April 4 in a repeat of last season's final.

Will Skelton has been banned for four weeks for a dangerous late tackle on Brice Dulin in beleaguered Saracens' crucial European Champions Cup win over Racing 92 on Sunday.

Skelton was shown a red card just before half-time at Allianz Park after his shoulder struck full-back Dulin's head.

Sarries went on to win 27-24, setting up a quarter-final at Leinster, a day after their relegation to the Championship at the end of the season was confirmed due to salary-cap breaches.

Skelton attended an independent disciplinary hearing in London on Tuesday and the Australian is set to miss the European champions' Premiership clash with Harlequins, two encounters with Sale Sharks – in the league and Premiership Rugby Cup – and a top-flight game at Wasps.

The towering 27-year-old's guilty plea, good disciplinary record and expression of remorse were taken into account when his sanction was handed out.

Skelton will be available to return against Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens on February 29.

Sarries travel to Dublin to face Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in a repeat of last year's final in the first week of April.

 

 

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