Exeter revived their bid to qualify for the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup with a 34-12 win over 14-man Castres at Sandy Park on Sunday.
The Chiefs, top of the English Premiership, needed to win their final two group fixtures, against French club Castres and two-time European champions Munster, to have a chance of reaching the knockout phase.
Exeter, without a win in the first three rounds of this season’s Champions Cup, went halfway to that task by running in five tries in a bonus-point home win over the French Top 14 champions ahead of a trip to Munster’s Thomond Park ground.
They may now well need to deny Irish province Munster a losing bonus point or complete a five-point maximum victory of their own into the bargain.
But the southwest side can travel to Limerick knowing they still have a chance after tries by fullback Jack Nowell, fly-half Joe Simmonds, lock Jonny Hill, wing Tom O’Flaherty, centre Henry Slade and replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, allied to two Simmonds conversions, eliminated Castres.
The visitors’ defeat was made worse when replacement prop Tudor Stroe was sent off on the hour mark for swinging an arm into the head of Exeter centre Ollie Devoto.
“We spoke about having a fast start and we did that,” Nowell, returning to action with a try after suffering a hamstring injury on England duty during the November internationals, told BT Sport.
“It’s positive that we focussed on our game and we worked hard to come through.”
Exeter boss Rob Baxter added: “We’ve done the most important thing, we’ve given ourselves a reason to go to Munster and play what is close to a knockout game.
“The huge thing when you play against Munster is they get a huge amount of emotional energy into these games. We’ll have to try and match that and overcome it.”
Nowell needed a mere three minutes to make his presence felt, opening up the Castres defence with a brilliant run that saw him sprint 45 metres for an excellent solo try.
To their credit, Castres responded quickly with a try by Taylor Paris, the Canada wing.
But from then on it was largely one-way traffic, with Exeter 12 points ahead at half-time.
Castres did manage a second try after the break through centre Thomas Combezou but it was too late to alter the course of the match.
© Agence France-Presse (Additional edits by Marisa Kennedy)