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Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter admits qualification for the knock-out stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup is unlikely ahead of their trip to face ASM Clermont Auvergne.
The Chiefs face Pool 5 leaders Clermont on Saturday hoping to join them in the last eight.
Baxter’s side are second after following December's win over Bordeaux Begles by seeing off Ulster at Sandy Park last Sunday. But they will need to gain maximum points against Clermont and hope other results go their way to stand any chance of qualification.
The Chiefs are in fine form after losing just once in 10 games, but Baxter, 45, knows how difficult it will be to get a victory at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
“Clermont, we know, will be a tough challenge – it always is when you go over there,” he said.
“As I said, it’s unlikely we will qualify, but we will go for it. We’re still very much in the two other competitions, the Premiership and the Anglo-Welsh Cup, so we’ll see what happens with this one.
“What I think our guys are starting to understand, though, is that there are things we can do to keep those things in our hands. We’ve not quite done it in Europe.
“We’re learning all the time and the important thing for me is that we keep driving forward and learn lessons that we can then take into the Premiership and beyond.”
The Chiefs’ turnaround in form has helped lift them from the foot of Pool 5 to second and in with a slim chance of qualification for the last eight.
Clermont have steamrolled their way through the Champions Cup pool stages, accumulating 21 points and losing just once. They wrapped up Pool 5 after narrowly beating Bordeaux 9-6 last Sunday.
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ASM Clermont Auvergne will be the top seeds in the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals after romping to a 48-26 victory over Exeter Chiefs.
Five first-half tries sealed the bonus-point and a return to Stade Marcel Michelin in the last-eight, before Rob Baxter’s men fought-back to claim an unlikely try-scoring bonus-point. Benjamin Kayser and Noa Nakataici set the tone with scores in the first 10 minutes, before Wesley Fofana, Nick Abendanon and a penalty try earned a 34-0 lead at the break.
James Short pulled a try back before Peceli Yato and Alexandre Lapandry crossed, but scores from Ollie Devoto, Ollie Woodburn and Michele Campagnaro underlined Exeter’s never-say-die attitude. Clermont knew a bonus-point victory would guarantee top seeding for the quarter-finals, and they got off to the perfect start.
Morgan Parra found the corner with a kick from the base of a ruck to put the pressure on the Chiefs.
Jack Yeandle overthrew the lineout into the grateful hands of Kayser, who crashed over to score on his 80th appearance in Europe’s premier competition.
Parra converted to make it 7-0 after four minutes, and they did not have to wait long for a second score.
Yato put Clermont on the front-foot before the ball was worked wide to Remy Lamerat. The centre delivered a perfectly weighted pass to Noa Nakaitaci, who sprinted down the right wing to score.
Parra added a penalty to make it 15-0 before Ollie Woodburn gifted Clermont a third try after 23 minutes.
The Exeter wing chased Abendanon back before slapping a pass meant for Fofana into touch to deny a try. But referee Andrew Brace awarded a penalty try that was converted by Parra after consulting with the TMO, and sent Woodburn for 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
Devoto followed short after for a high-shot on Abendanon, and Fofana exploited the fractured defence to score the bonus-point try after half an hour. Abendanon then crashed over for his fifth Champions Cup try in as many matches to put the hosts 34-0 ahead at half-time.
Devoto broke clean through in the first minute of the second-half before Jack Maunder sent Short over for a converted try. But Yato peeled off a lineout moments later and charged through a gap to restore their 34 point lead, and Lapandry went over on the 50 minute mark to put Clermont 48-7 ahead.
Exeter then staged a comeback to earn a try-scoring bonus-point of their own. First Devoto strolled over after an offload from Woodburn, before he turned scorer for the second. Campagnaro then sprinted down the right wing to grab a try-scoring bonus-point, but it was too little, too late.
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