The best rugby players live for weekends like this. Playing for your country is a huge honour but a major European club semi-final, alongside your closest mates, can feel similarly emotional. As the big forwards of Exeter prepare to collide with the full force of Toulouse and the gladiators of Saracens strap on their breastplates to face Racing 92 in Paris, there is a bond of brotherhood and mutual recognition that, to quote Maximus, what we do in life echoes in eternity.
It is part of the reason, echoing stands or not, why a tantalising pair of Heineken Champions’ Cup semi-finals crackle with such anticipation. The defending champions, Saracens, will need more of the Asterix-style magic potion that swept them past Leinster last Saturday while the Chiefs seek to distil a decade of steady improvement into 80 minutes of pure nectar. If it ends up with both English clubs meeting in only the second all-Premiership final in the tournament’s 25-year history it will be an achievement for the ages.
No wonder Exeter’s wise director of rugby, Rob Baxter, has been guarding against premature excitement all week. If his hard-working side are to conquer the continental summit, it will be because they get their basics, driven mauls and intensity levels spot-on, rather than trying to out-dazzle Toulouse’s virtuoso backs. Suffocate the visitors at source and cider rather than champagne will be flowing afterwards.
Step forward, then, Exeter’s twin peaks, as imposing on their day as any of Dartmoor’s granite tors. Jonny Gray and Jonny Hill, who respectively stand 6ft 5in and 6ft 7in will not have it easy: the famously enormous Joe Tekori and the 6ft 10in Rory Arnold, popularly known in his native Australia as “three-storey Rory”, are even bigger. The Chiefs’ relentless engine room, however, is among the reasons they sit atop the domestic table. The strength of Gray’s anatomy has helped make him one of Europe’s toughest defensive barriers while the rangy, multi-skilled Hill is the best uncapped lock in England. “He could definitely play Test rugby,” confirms Gray, suitably impressed since teaming up with his fellow 26-year-old this year.
Of course there are other crucial areas – Toulouse’s scrum-half Antoine Dupont and winger Cheslin Kolbe are both world-class operators – but get their set-piece right and Exeter, with another big Chief in Sam Skinner on the bench, will fancy their fitness telling against opponents who have had only one competitive away game since March. Stade may also be unnerved by a chilly Sandy Park, with its unusually deep in-goal areas, and a home side who firmly believe their time is coming. Toulouse won their fourth European title in the same month in 2010 that Exeter clinched promotion from the Championship. A decade later, belief-wise, it is a clash of equals.
Take Gray, for example. If Stade know a little bit about the Scot, now capped 57 times, he knows much more about them. His brother Richie played for Toulouse for four years before returning to Glasgow this year and his sibling understands exactly what is needed to beat the 2019 French champions. “I’ve obviously watched Toulouse a lot over the last few years. When you see the talent they have it’s going to take a massive defensive effort. We’ll need to work together because we know how tough it’s going to be.”
In that respect Gray believes Exeter are particularly tight, with he and his fellow Scot Stuart Hogg both loving life in Devon. “What’s stood out is how welcoming everybody is: players, coaches, staff, everyone. There’s such a great culture here and I’m very much enjoying it. They talk about how closeness and togetherness off the field should make a massive difference on it. They want to make memories on and off the pitch.”
Striking up an instant second-row rapport is not always simple but the two Jonnys seem a happy match. Gray has found Hill to be good company – “he has a dry sense of humour which I’ve got as well” – and it turns out the pair have something else in common beyond their first names, ages and positions. Both spent their childhoods trying to keep up with bigger elder brothers, unaware it was ideal preparation for elite sport. Growing up near Ludlow – his father Nick is a stock dealer while his mum Marie’s twin brother is the former Great Britain rugby league centre Paul Loughlin – Hill now has good reason to be grateful to his sheep-farming brother Josh, three years his senior. “We wrestled the life out of each other all the time. I never ever thought about playing professional rugby growing up. I just enjoyed playing, running around. The contact element was good and the seed grew to the point where I thought: ‘I could be quite good at this.’
The bearded Hill, who used to play alongside Ellis Genge and Ross Moriarty at Hartpury College and is among several Exeter players promoting their own Rib Tickler cider, is now hungry for more than one solitary non-playing bench selection for England in South Africa two years ago. Against Worcester last month he became the first lock forward to score a hat-trick of tries in the league since Simon Shaw in 2003, having made a conscious effort to train like a madman in his garden and local fields throughout lockdown. “I’m only 26 but I want to maximise every bit of potential I have and achieve as much as I can. As a young player coming through it’s really enjoyable. You come home and relax and think about other things. Now I’m always thinking about how I can improve. I’m a totally different player and character now to when England picked me to tour South Africa. I’m two years older and have another 50-odd Premiership games in me. I still feel I haven’t reached my ceiling yet.”
Which is precisely how everyone at Exeter feels. Jack Nowell and Henry Slade may attract the most media attention but, as Hill makes clear, it is the collective that makes the Chiefs believe they can take the final leap. “We’ve waited for this for a long time. And the longer we’ve waited the more important it’s got. We’ve never played Toulouse before. It’s a real chance to focus on ourselves and say: ‘You guys come and stop us.’”