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SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: The key battles ahead of Exeter against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final


Exeter Chiefs attempt to conquer Europe as they take on Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final at Ashton Gate on Saturday.

The Devonians have been regarded as the bookmakers’ favourites but they will be wary of the threat posed by 2016 and 2018 runners-up Racing.

Sportsmail columnist Sir Clive Woodward assesses the key battles ahead of the European showdown…  

England's in-form hooker will take on France's best ball carrier in the Champions Cup final

England’s in-form hooker will take on France’s best ball carrier in the Champions Cup final

THE HOOKERS

Luke Cowan-Dickie v Camille Chat

There is a strong argument that Cowan-Dickie is the in-form English hooker at present. England’s first-choice No 2 Jamie George has done little wrong this season but Cowan-Dickie’s workrate is so impressive, he carries strongly, has that priceless ability of scoring tries and his tackling is ferocious. He is a strong scrummager but, like most hookers, he does have occasional issues in the lineout.

Exeter need set-piece dominance — especially in the lineout — so it’s important that Cowan-Dickie has a good afternoon and connects smoothly with Jonny Hill and Jonny Gray.

Racing 92's Camille Chat is a real force of nature and will cause Exeter Chiefs problems

Racing 92’s Camille Chat is a real force of nature and will cause Exeter Chiefs problems

Chat is Racing’s strongest ball carrier and probably the best ball carrier in the France team. He is a real force of nature. It always takes two or three defenders to stop him. The presence at hooker of Guilhem Guirado, then the French captain, held him back for a while but these next few years should be a career peak for him.

THE COACHES

Rob Baxter v Laurent Travers

What impresses me most about Baxter is his calmness under pressure and the trust he places in his players. You don’t get any histrionics and that communicates itself to the players. Stick to the plan, pay close attention to the basics, keep playing for the full 80 minutes and good things tend to happen.

If a player drops the ball with the line begging, fails to see an overlap or misses a tackle, you get no explosion, shouting or recriminations up in the stands. He knows that his team have excellent players who are their own harshest critics.

Rob Baxter is a cooling influence on Devonians but his opposite man has European pedigree

Rob Baxter is a cooling influence on Devonians but his opposite man has European pedigree

Travers has an affinity with the European Cup dating back to his time with Brive, who won it in 1997. Brive were very tough and combative up front but had a great back division and loved to move the ball wide. They had plenty of X-factor, just like Racing do now. He did a great job guiding Castres to the domestic title a few years back and after he replicated the feat with Racing in 2016, he set his sights on a European title.

THE FLY-HALVES 

Joe Simmonds v Finn Russell

Simmonds has really caught my eye this season. He can control proceedings nicely, has all the skills and knows when to choose his moment to attack himself. He has real gas and strength and the Chiefs have learnt to keep on his shoulder.

He is also successful with the boot — well over 80 per cent kicking success in all competitions — and that is another string to his bow when it comes to Test rugby. On top of everything, he is a leader which Rob Baxter has immediately recognised by giving him the captaincy at a relatively early age.

We all know about Russell. He is a player who can produce moments of sublime brilliance, the latest example being the exquisite chip ahead to create the chance for Virimi Vakatawa to clinch the semi-final against Saracens. One moment of brilliance, though, is not enough to beat Exeter, Russell needs to bring his exciting back division into play for the full 80 minutes. He might also find his defence tested, as Simmonds likes to attack his opposite number.

THE FULL BACKS 

Stuart Hogg v Simon Zebo

Two of the most exciting full backs in the world, with lashings of X-factor. Their team-mates look to them for those moments but when you wear the No 15 shirt your first responsibility is to look after the basics. You must be solid under the high ball, a strong last line of defence and a reliable kicker. In a final those parts of your game need to be in full working order.

Simon Zebo is one of the most exciting full backs in the world but so is Exeter's 15 Stuart Hogg

Simon Zebo is one of the most exciting full backs in the world but so is Exeter’s 15 Stuart Hogg

Both players have made high-profile moves. For Hogg it has been purely to improve his game, he wanted to play at a club regularly competing for silverware and among a group that could challenge him to become an even better player. He has certainly chosen well in that respect.

For Zebo it was slightly different. By making the decision to move to France, he disqualified himself from the Ireland set-up but with a father from Martinique, which is a prefecture of France, there was a strong cultural draw to France as well as the chance to play for Racing. In the absence of Test rugby, the Champions Cup is his chance to shine at the top level.

THE No 8s 

Sam Simmonds v Antonie Claassen

There is a big difference in the ages and experience of Simmonds and Claassen. The latter is the son of former Springbok captain Wynand Claassen and has been a wonderfully consistent performer for Brive, Castres and Racing since he moved to France 13 years ago.

He has retained that Boks toughness and power going forward but is a clever footballer as well.

Sam Simmonds is possibly one of England's most dynamic runners in their back row options

Sam Simmonds is possibly one of England’s most dynamic runners in their back row options

Simmonds is possibly the most dynamic runner of the young back-row tyros currently competing for England recognition and the momentum he gives Exeter is an important part of their game. He could easily play centre and this is a massive opportunity for him to make a statement in a marquee club game.

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