Wales prop Tomos Francis is set to become only the 12 Welsh player who has conquered Europe if Exeter win their Heineken Champions Cup Final against Racing 92.
The Chiefs charged into their maiden European final with a thrilling 28-18 victory over Toulouse at Sandy Park on Saturday to ensure there will be a first-time winner in this year’s elite European club rugby competition.
The English Premiership side, who won promotion to the top-flight 10 years ago, will face twice runners-up Racing 92 in the final on Oct. 17, after the French club beat holders Saracens 19-15 in the first semi-final in Paris.
Francis – who came on as a 62nd minute replacement at Sandy Park – will join an elite band of 11 other Welsh players if he lifts the trophy.
No Welsh team has yet managed to win it since the tournament began in 1996.
The tight-head, who has been with the Devon-based club for six years, won his 48th and most recent Wales cap at last year’s World Cup.
He was then ruled out of the Six Nations earlier this year with a shoulder injury suffered in Japan, but returned to club action this summer and now stands just one win away from emulating the feat of Liam Williams – the most recent Welsh European Champions Cup winner – last season with Saracens.
“It means so much for us — as it would any team — getting to a European final,” the Chiefs number eight Sam Simmonds said. “It’s huge. We’ll enjoy it tonight. It’s a massive win for us.”
French champions Toulouse stormed out of the blocks, putting the Chiefs under intense pressure with their free-flowing attacking style and were 6-0 ahead after 13 minutes via a pair of Thomas Ramos penalties.
Exeter hit back in typical fashion on the half-hour mark when Tom O’Flaherty found a gap to get within two metres of the Toulouse line before Harry Williams crossed after a series of bruising phases, with Joe Simmonds making the conversion.
“They really put us under pressure with the offloads,” Simmonds added. “They’ve got so many superstars. When we were under the cosh we had to go back to the basics and what we’ve built ourselves on. We’re built on hard work.
“In previous years we’d come up against teams like Toulouse and they’d blow us away with their class, but we’re just as good now.”
Toulouse, who have won the trophy four times, were only behind for five minutes before another thrilling attack ended in substitute Alban Placines crossing out wide on the right to put the visitors back in front.
But Exeter recovered again, with Sam Simmonds going over from close range before his brother Joe completed the conversion to send the home side into halftime with a 14-11 lead.
Williams scored his second in the 59th minute after more crunching offensive phases from the Chiefs one metre from the Toulouse line, before O’Flaherty broke again in the 70th in a move that ended in Joe Simmonds crossing for Exeter.
Simmonds converted his own try to put Exeter on the brink and they held on for a famous win to reach their first Champions Cup final despite a late consolation for Toulouse after replacement winger Matthis Lebel went over under the posts.
Joe Simmonds! That is special! ⚡️
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 26, 2020
One more win and Francis can join a special list of Welsh players who have won the ultimate title in European club rugby.
It all began with Tony Rees in the Brive side of 1997 and the Exeter star can become the 12th winner.
Welsh Winners of the European Cup
1997: Tony Rees (Brive)
1998: Ieuan Evans, Nathan Thomas, Richard Webster (Bath)
2000: Allan Bateman, Andy Newman (Northampton Saints)
2004: Rob Howley (Wasps)
2005: Gareth Thomas (Toulouse)
2013: Gethin Jenkins (Toulon)
2015: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon)
2019: Liam Williams (Saracens)