Exeter Chiefs overpowered domestic rivals Sale Sharks while Clermont Auvergne crushed Bath in Sunday's European Champions Cup action.

The all-Premiership clash at Sandy Park saw Exeter lead just 7-3 at the break, but the Sharks were eventually thumped 35-10 after capsizing in a hailstorm-interrupted second half.

Sam Simmonds crossed in each half while brother Joe also grabbed a try for the Chiefs, who sit top of Pool 2 after a fourth successive win in this season's competition.

They appear certainties to seal a place in the last eight for just the second time in their history, as they have a firm grip on a pool that also includes Glasgow Warriors and La Rochelle.

Sam James scored the only try of the contest for Sale but the heavy loss on their travels leaves the struggling Sharks with just six points to their name.

Clermont, meanwhile, moved to within a point of Pool 3 leaders Ulster thanks to a 52-26 thrashing of Bath at Stade Marcel-Michelin.

Alivereti Raka and George Moala both touched down twice for the Top 14 side, who had the bonus point wrapped up by half-time as they scored eight tries in the rout.

Bath went over four times themselves to collect a losing bonus, though they remain rooted to the bottom of the table as their wait for a European victory this season goes on.

Rob Baxter and his senior Exeter Chiefs coaches have signed new deals with the Premiership club.

Director of rugby Baxter has extended his stay at Sandy Park until 2023 along with head coach Ali Hepher, forwards coach Rob Hunter and skills coach Ricky Pellow.

Baxter masterminded Exeter's first Premiership title two years ago and has also overseen two Anglo-Welsh Cup triumphs.

The long-serving Baxter is targeting further glory after committing his future to Chiefs.

"Personally, I'm absolutely delighted to have agreed a new three-year contract extension," said Baxter.

"However, I'm even more pleased that the other coaches have also agreed similar extensions. I think it's a real indication of how happy we all are working alongside one another each day.

"Together, we understand the ambitions of the club moving forward - and of how exciting this next period is going to be for the rugby club.

"I think as a group we all feel that everything we want to achieve can be achieved here over these next three years, so it's exciting times for all of us and I'm looking forward to us building on the fantastic foundations we have laid as a collective group."

Rob Baxter admitted the closing stages of Exeter Chiefs' 22-20 European Champions Cup win over Sale Sharks were agony for him.

The Chiefs made it three wins on the bounce in Pool 2 to edge towards the quarter-finals but the visitors had to absorb late pressure at the AJ Bell Stadium on Sunday.

Jono Ross' score for the Sharks set up a tense finale and director of rugby Baxter was left in considerable anguish on the touchline.

"The last 10 minutes were the longest 10 minutes of my life," he said after his side failed to score in the second half. 

"Sale kept coming and we couldn't relieve any pressure. I thought we tried to close the game out a little bit early and nearly paid the price.

"We had to show some fighting qualities to see them off."

Opposite number Steve Diamond, whose side remain in the hunt for a spot in the next round, paid tribute to his team's effort.

"The lads played really well," he said. "We changed things up in the week with our attack and I think that went well.

"I thought our forwards matched them today and probably edged them towards the end."

Exeter Chiefs made it three wins from as many European Champions Cup Pool 2 games with a 22-20 victory over fellow Premiership side Sale Sharks.

The action was concentrated in an entertaining first half at the AJ Bell Stadium, where Stuart Hogg was pivotal in a penalty try and touched down for another five points.

Sale responded through Akker van der Merwe's two tries, but Luke Cowan-Dickie crossed to ensure Rob Baxter's men were ahead at the interval.

The second half was scoreless until Jono Ross' late try gave Sale hope, but Exeter saw out the victory to move to the brink of securing a quarter-final spot.

Gloucester revived their hopes of reaching the knockout stage with a first win in three attempts in Pool 5.

After back-to-back defeats, in which they had the consolation of taking losing bonus points, the Premiership side defeated Connacht 26-17 and gained a try-scoring bonus point.

Having trailed at the break, the hosts roared back to triumph at Kingsholm Stadium, with Tom Marshall touching down in each half, while Louis Rees-Zammit and Jake Polledri also got in on the act.

Connacht were hamstrung by Kyle Godwin's dismissal as they were left at the foot of the table.

In the same group, Toulouse continued their 100 per cent record with a dominant 23-9 victory over Montpellier.

A pair of tries from Matt Proctor helped Northampton Saints move top of the Premiership as they made it four wins from five with a 36-13 triumph over Leicester Tigers.

New Zealander Proctor, whose sole appearance for the All Blacks came a year ago, was making his Premiership debut and soon endeared himself to the Franklin's Garden crowd with an early brace in the derby.

Saints were without international trio Courtney Lawes, Dan Biggar and Owen Franks due to injury, yet they were 24-10 up at the interval, Proctor crossing twice and then producing the break that led to Api Ratuniyarawa going over.

There was no way back for Leicester, despite Guy Thompson's first-half score, as Tom Collins and Fraser Dingwall added further tries for Northampton after the interval.

Exeter Chiefs moved up to second, four points adrift of Saints, with a comfortable 38-3 success over Wasps.

Having lost to Bristol Bears last time out in the Premiership, Exeter bounced back in style in a five-try display, with England international Luke Cowan-Dickie among those to go over.

Fourteen-man Sale Sharks were beaten 20-13 by Worcester Warriors as the visitors were left to rue Jean-Luc du Preez's red card for a shoulder-led tackle on the stroke of half-time.

Sale led at the break, Faf de Klerk and Chris Ashton having gone over, but Perry Humphreys and Ashley Beck both crossed in the space of two minutes after the Sharks went down to 14 men, with the boot of Duncan Weir - who kicked two conversions and a pair of penalties - proving pivotal.

Saracens rebounded from an opening defeat to Racing 92 by hammering a depleted Ospreys side 44-3 in the European Champions Cup.

The holders have endured a miserable time of it lately after being hit with a mammoth £5.36million fine and 35-point Premiership deduction for breaching salary cap rules during the past three seasons.

But Elliot Daly impressed on his debut and England team-mates Mako Vunipola and George Kruis returned in a six-try showing.

Jack Singleton, Alex Lewington and Rotimi Segun (2) all touched down before a penalty try and a score from Richard Barrington put an Ospreys side devoid of Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Gareth Anscombe and George North to the sword.

Elsewhere in Pool 4, Finn Russell scored a superb nutmeg try as part of a fine display but Racing 92 played out a 21-21 draw at Munster.

Andrew Conway's 75th-minute score and J.J. Hanrahan's excellent conversion earned a point for the hosts at Thomond Park.

Stuart Hogg was on the winning side against former employees Glasgow Warriors as Exeter Chiefs triumphed 34-18 to make it two from two in Pool 2.

Henry Slade, Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds and Tom O'Flaherty all scored tries, while Nick Grigg and George Turner registered for the Warriors.

Top 14 leaders Lyon lost for the second successive European game as last season's losing finalists Leinster scrapped to a 13-6 win on their travels – Max Deegan's first-half score ultimately proving crucial.

The other match in Pool 1 saw Northampton Saints record a thrilling 35-32 triumph at Benetton Treviso.

Dan Biggar nailed a last-gasp penalty to complete a fine fightback for Saints, who scored 17 second-half points – Ollie Sleightholme touching down and Tom Collins celebrating a second try of the game.

Connacht enjoyed a winning return to Europe's premier competition with an opening victory over Montpellier but were brought crashing back to earth in Pool 5, suffering a 32-17 defeat at Toulouse.

Rounding out the action, Harlequins edged out domestic rivals Bath 15-9 to get up and running in Pool 3.

Wales have suffered a further injury blow after prop Tomas Francis was ruled out for at least the start of the Six Nations due to shoulder surgery.

Francis hurt his shoulder while playing in the Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat against eventual champions South Africa.

Exeter Chiefs confirmed on Monday the 27-year-old will miss up to four months of action due to a "serious" problem.

That provides an additional selection headache to new Wales head coach Wayne Pivac, with their Six Nations campaign to start on February 1 against Italy and their last match against Scotland taking place on March 14.

They are already without star centre Jonathan Davies for the entire tournament, with fly-half Rhys Patchell also a doubt.

As for Exeter, the Premiership club have signed Argentine Enrique Pieretto due to the injuries to Francis and fellow prop Greg Holmes.

Director of rugby Rob Baxter said: "After two or three scans it became clear that Tom needs an operation to repair the shoulder injury he picked up with Wales at the World Cup.

"It's not great news for us, but at least we know where we stand now."

Garry Ringrose scored a hat-trick as last season's runners-up Leinster beat Benetton 33-19 and Clermont Auvergne thrashed Harlequins in the European Champions Cup on Saturday.

Leinster were beaten by Saracens in the final in May, but the 2018 Champions Cup holders started their quest to regain the trophy with a bonus-point Pool 1 win at the RDS Arena.

Ringrose was the star of the show, the Ireland centre crossing twice inside the first 14 minutes and completing his treble after the break.

Ronan Kelleher also touched down on his European debut before Johnny Sexton rounded off a slick move early in the second half, the Ireland fly-half also adding six points with the boot.

Tries from Dean Budd, Epalahame Faiva and Luca Sperandio were in vain as Benetton were second best in the all-Pro 14 encounter.

Challenge Cup holders Clermont hammered Quins 53-21 in the Pool 2 clash at Stade Marcel Michelin.

Alivereti Raka and Peceli Yato grabbed doubles as the Top 14 side scored seven tries, blowing Paul Gustard's side away.

John Cooney made amends for an incredible missed penalty by slotting over the winning points from the tee to give Ulster a 17-16 success in the other Pool 2 match at Bath.

Exeter Chiefs are the early Pool 2 leaders following a 31-12 bonus-point win at La Rochelle, while DTH Van Der Merwe scored Glasgow Warriors' only try in a 13-7 home triumph over Sale Sharks.

Munster opened their European campaign with a 32-13 Pool 4 defeat of the Ospreys on their travels, Keith Earls and Andrew Conway among their four try-scorers.

Bristol Bears pulled off a stunning fightback to beat Exeter Chiefs 20-17 and go top of the Premiership, while Waisake Naholo scored a debut try in London Irish's thrashing of bottom side Leicester Tigers on Sunday.

The Chiefs looked to be cruising to victory when they scored 17 unanswered points in the first half of a Sandy Park thriller.

Bristol had other ideas and snatched an unlikely win right at the end when Dan Thomas crashed over with Exeter unable to stop a driving maul.

Tries from Sam Simmonds and Nic White along with seven points from the boot of Joe Simmonds put Exeter in command at the interval, but Bristol scored 17 points in the last 20 minutes to stun Rob Baxter's side.

Callum Sheedy was on target with two penalties and Piers O'Conor dotted down with White in the sin bin before Thomas was awarded a decisive score following consultation with the TMO.

Sheedy added the extras as Bristol moved level with Northampton Saints on 14 points and replaced them at the summit.

Former New Zealand wing Naholo, one of a host of high-profile signings for the Exiles following their promotion from the Championship, was among five try-scorers in a bonus-point victory at the Madejski Stadium.

Nick Phipps picked out fellow debutant Naholo with a brilliant cross-field kick and the powerful flyer finished clinically, while Ruan Botha was another new recruit to touch down to keep the Tigers at the foot of the table.

Saracens chairman Nigel Wray insists players will not have to be sold in the wake of the club's hefty fine for breaching salary cap rules.

The Premiership champions were hit with a £5.36million fine and docked 35 points after being found to have exceeded the ceiling for payments to players in each of the past three seasons.

Sarries have appealed against the decision and insist they have done nothing wrong, with Wray defending the practice of players engaging in investment or property partnerships with him.

And on Wednesday, Wray declared there would be no knock-on effect on the make-up of the European champions' playing staff at first-team or academy level.

"Just to clarify – no obligation whatsoever to get rid of any players," Wray said in a video posted on the club's Twitter account.

"The academy is a jewel in our crown and has been greatly responsible for half the England side that got to the World Cup final. Seven of those have been with us for between seven and 10 years, almost since they were kids.

"This is what a caring environment and looking after each person does. You have a band of brothers.

"If you think it's about money, you're wrong; it's about caring, it's about love, it's about working together. 

"I'm very proud of all of our players, indeed everybody at Saracens. I'm proud of their achievements and I hope there'll be many, many more achievements – on the field and off."

The London club have come in for significant criticism and on Wednesday there were no Sarries representatives in attendance at the European Champions Cup launch, despite them being the holders.

At that event in Cardiff, Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter suggested Sarries' back-to-back Premiership title wins would be tarnished if their appeal should fail.

The Chiefs were beaten by Saracens in each of the last two finals.

Saracens' back-to-back Premiership title successes will have come via unfair means if their punishment for breaching salary cap rules is upheld, according to Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter. 

The reigning champions of England and Europe have been docked 35 points and fined £5.36million for exceeding the ceiling for payments to players in each of the past three seasons.

Sarries were hit with the sanction following an investigation by Premiership Rugby prompted by revelations several high-profile players had formed investment or property partnerships with club owner Nigel Wray.

The London club are appealing against the verdict and have denied any wrongdoing, but Baxter – whose Chiefs side have lost to Sarries in the final in each of the past two campaigns – believes if that appeal fails, it will tarnish the last two title wins. 

And, while Baxter would "love to" see those Premiership triumphs reassigned to Exeter, he considers that an unlikely outcome. 

"If this is upheld, it's pretty obvious those titles have been won unfairly," Baxter said in Cardiff at the launch of this season's Champions Cup, an event at which Sarries had no representatives. 

"If you're asking me would I like to walk into Sandy Park and see three Premiership trophies there, I would love to.

"In reality do I see that happening? No. There are too many other factors that come into play.

"I believe the way we played in the final last year would have beaten any other team in the Premiership.

"The whole truth is if Saracens had been operating with a different group of players last season they may not have got to the final, and if a different team had been there they might have outperformed us on the day," he continued.

"It would be ridiculous for me to say they were givens. How many results could have been different in the course of a season and the top four could have been created differently.

"Every one of the games, semi-finals and finals would have been different. To sit here and say 'we should have been given the title' is a little bit like a shortcut when the season is what you do as whole."

Beleaguered Saracens could face further sanctions for failing to send a representative to the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup launch on Wednesday.

The European and English champions were on Tuesday docked 35 Premiership points and fined £5.36million for exceeding the ceiling for payments to players in each of the last three seasons.

Sarries were sanctioned after Premiership Rugby launched an investigation following revelations that high-profile players had entered into investment or property partnerships with club owner Nigel Wray.

The London club will appeal against what they described as "heavy-handed sanctions" and may also have to explain to European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) why they were not represented at an event in Cardiff.

An EPCR statement read: "EPCR is disappointed to learn of Saracens' decision to make their club representatives unavailable for today's official 2019/20 season launch of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup in Cardiff.

"EPCR will now consider what action is appropriate in this instance and will be making no further comment at this time."

Exeter were runners-up to Saracens in the last two Premiership seasons and Chiefs chairman Tony Rowe called for the champions to be relegated.

Asked what punishment they should have faced, Rowe told BBC Radio Devon: "Relegation - in professional sport in America, if you're in breach of the salary cap you get thrown out completely."

He added: "We, for a number of years, have suspected they've been infringing the salary cap,

"But I don't think the penalty is severe enough. You take away 35 points this year - they could still be in the semi-finals and could still end up at Twickenham [in the Premiership final]."

Exeter Chiefs roared back from 17-3 down to stun Worcester Warriors and claim a thrilling Premiership triumph on Sunday.

The Chiefs were indebted to Harry Williams as the prop's late converted try sealed a dramatic 24-20 victory at Sixways. 

A very different story appeared to be unfolding when Perry Humphreys touched down twice in the first half for the hosts, with Duncan Weir adding the extras both times and kicking a penalty.

But the Chiefs, beaten in the final last season after topping the table, cut the deficit courtesy of Jack Maunder's score.

And the second half belonged to the visitors, who ramped up the pressure when Matt Kvesic dotted down against his former club.

Another Weir penalty looked to have earned the Warriors some breathing space but Williams had other ideas and powered over to win it for his side. 

Stuart Hogg's Exeter Chiefs debut ended in defeat as Bath ground out a 13-10 victory in Friday's Premiership clash at The Rec.

Full-back Hogg made his first appearance for last season's losing finalists after becoming available following Scotland's pool-stage elimination at the Rugby World Cup.

Prospects looked positive for the Chiefs in soaking wet conditions when Jonny Hill went under the posts 15 minutes in for the first try after Rhys Priestland's boot had put Bath on the board early doors.

Joe Simmonds added the extras and nailed a penalty to stretch the lead, but Bath were level by the break as Tom Dunn bundled over the line and Priestland kicked the conversion.

Priestland was on target again with a three-pointer in the 56th minute and Zach Mercer made a stunning covering tackle on Alex Cuthbert, who had broken from his own 22 for the Chiefs, to protect the slim advantage.

Bath held firm for the points to recover from last week's resounding 43-16 loss to Bristol Bears in their season opener, while the Chiefs succumbed to a first defeat after beating Harlequins last time out.

James Grayson's late penalty snatched a 27-25 win for Northampton Saints at champions Saracens as Exeter Chiefs started the Premiership season with a narrow win over Harlequins.

Saints led 21-16 at half-time following tries from David Ribbans, Rory Hutchinson and Henry Taylor.

The European Champions Cup holders looked set to edge it when Ben Spencer slotted over his sixth penalty of the match with four minutes remaining, but there was a final twist to the tale.

Grayson stepped up for a shot at goal in the closing stages and made no mistake, sealing Northampton's first away win over Saracens in three years.

Exeter, runners-up last season, got their league campaign under way with a 22-19 success over Quins at Sandy Park.

Jonny Hill scored the Chiefs' only try in the first half and Joe Simmonds booted 17 points as Gabriel Ibitoye's double proved to be in vain.

Worcester Warriors were 24-16 winners over Leicester Tigers, while Gloucester came out on top 18-16 at Sale Sharks.

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