For almost two decades, a handful of clubs have dominated the European rugby union scene.
Saracens, Leinster and Toulon have shared the last 11 titles, in the Champions Cup era and prior to that with the Heineken Cup. With London Wasps and Munster, five teams have dominated the honours since Leicester Tigers’ double at the beginning of the century.
This year will be different because a side that has previously not lifted the trophy will be taking it home. One of those sides, Racing 92, has appeared in two of last four finals. The other, Devon’s own Exeter Chiefs, are making their maiden appearance in the showcase event.
27-year-old Henry Slade has been confident this is the Chief’s year since the quarter-finals. At that stage, Leinster, Saracens and Toulouse all remained in the competition, but the England star was positive his side could advance.
“We’re confident and will back ourselves against anyone,” he said. “We have massive respect for the teams left, but history doesn’t mean anything in the present does it? It’s all about who does it this year, and that’s hopefully going to be us.”
Advance they did, beating Northampton 38-15 in mid-September, followed by an impressive 28-18 victory against Toulouse to set up the first European final for the Devon outfit. The final will mark the beginning of a busy period for Slade, who also faces matches with England this autumn ahead of next year’s Six Nations.
The 2020 Six Nations was cancelled due to the world situation, but Slade excelled in 2019, scoring two of his four England tries in matches against Ireland (32-20) and France (44-8) as England finished second behind Wales. England are the most successful side in the Six Nations tournament according to Bwin, with six wins, ahead of Wales and France on five, and the 2020 tournament looked likely to bring a seventh victory. Prior to the early curtailment, England were top of the table ahead of France and looking likely to give Slade his first Six Nations medal.
Following Exeter’s huge final on October 17th, Slade is also likely to appear in the inaugural international tournament, the Nations Cup, which brings together the usual countries as well as Georgia and Fiji. Between international duty and now is the small matter of Exeter’s first-ever Champions Cup Final, a game likely to be the pinnacle of the centre’s career. Standing in their way are French side Racing 92, who finished third in their domestic league in 2019/20. They haven’t had the smoothest of preparations ahead of the final though, something that may give the Chiefs an edge.
For Slade, it will be a fairy-tale chapter in a story that has seen him battle extreme adversity. He has suffered from diabetes since he was small and has still made his way through the world of rugby to the very top, twice winning the Premiership title and finishing as a runner-up on three occasions. He had a cameo role in the 2017 Six Nations win for England, appearing for five minutes against Italy, which means internationally his World Cup runner-up medal from last year may take pride of place on his mantelpiece right now.
However, by the time Christmas rolls in he could have not only a Nations League winners medal, but also a coveted Champions Cup one, too. That would really cap off a challenging year off the field, for Slade, Exeter Chiefs and the sport in general.