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Harlequins crushed as Racing 92 move to banish ghosts of past European failures

T’WAS the nightmare before Christmas as Finn Russell’s Racing 92 handed Harlequins their heaviest ever home defeat in Europe.

The Scotland star and his X-factor pals from across the Channel cut Quins to ribbons to dump them out of the Champions Cup.

This was men against boys as Racing, beaten in three of the last five finals, helped themselves to a magnificent seven tries.

Quins were dire and team boss Paul Gustard admitted: “There was not one facet of the game where we performed.

“There are a lot of upset people, myself and the coaching staff included. We played against a team that was very good and we were anything but.

Quins ship another as Racing 92 run riot at The Stoop

“We were way off. Off in the warm-up, quiet, no bounce about us. No talk, no noise, no energy. Unfortunately we saw the consequences of that. A really really poor performance.”

This was as complete a win as you will see, from the moment Teddy Thomas waltzed through a non-existent defence on Racing’s first attack for what Gustard termed an “unbelievably soft” score.

The gulf in class was apparent long before the rampant Parisian outfit claimed the four-try bonus point with half an hour still to play.

Quins players powerless to prevent Georges-Henri Colombe scoring

Every time they went to their lineout drive they seemed to score and Russell led Quins such a merry dance that at no point was the result ever in doubt.

Unbeaten Wasps apart, this has been a poor tournament for English clubs so far. Gloucester, Exeter and Bristol have one win apiece yet have their work cut out to make the knockout stages.

Against opposition of this quality Quins needed everything to go right. Nothing did. They trailed 20-0 at half-time and two games into this competition have yet to register a first half point.

Quins’ defence breached again during their biggest ever home defeat in Europe

Any hope of a resurgence ended 38 seconds after the restart when Simon Zebo scored and from there the only question was how big a gubbing this would be.

The Londoners’ body language was poor and Chris Ashton’s crass late challenge on Thomas, which overturned a consolation try for Alex Dombrandt, pretty well summed things up.

By contrast Racing were a joy to watch – captain Henry Chavancy later admitting they are a team on a mission to avenge their defeat in last season’s final.

Georges-Henri Colombe takes to the air to claim his try

Nobody shone brighter than Russell, whom former Quins star Ugo Monye hailed as the “most naturally gifted fly-half in world rugby”.

Russell liked that, but passed the praise onto his forwards.

“I imagine for teams facing us it’s quite daunting to come up against that power,” he said. Quins were not about to disagree.

HARLEQUINS – Try: Steele. Con: Smith.

RACING – Tries: Thomas, Le Guen, Zebo, Colombe, Taofifenua, Baubigny, Trinh-Duc. Cons: Machenaud 3, Trinh-Duc 2. Pens: Machenaud 2.

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Northampton refuse to throw in towel as they take their losing run to Leinster

Of all the places in all the world, Dublin is the last Northampton would choose to visit today in rugby’s European Cup.

Saints have lost 12 successive matches and 17 out of 19 dating back to January. Pro14 champions Leinster have won 33 of 34 since May 2018.

To make matters worse Northampton playmaker Dan Biggar is injured and England fullback George Furbank fills in at 10 for only the second time.

Defeat and Saints will be out of the Champions Cup as well as rock bottom of the Premiership.

Team boss Chris Boyd, who signed a contract extension only last month, admitted: “Losing in a high-performance environment is never nice and it never should be.

Jack Willis scores for Wasps in Northampton’s first game back after lockdown, setting tone for what was to follow

“High performance sport is all about winning. We are clinging onto the fact that we are still intact, we are still aligned, still committed to excellence and we have continued to train really well. But we are in a bit of a hole.”

Northampton started the year lying second in the Premiership. Back-to-back wins in Europe eased them into the Champions Cup quarter-finals. Then the wheels came off.

“Our performances pre-Covid were built on a lot of positivity and confidence,” said Boyd. “We had a pretty good wave and pretty good momentum going.

Saints boss Chris Boyd

“When that came under pressure perhaps there wasn’t enough foundation and solidity around some of that performance, but when you are successful you tend not to analyse as deeply as when you are not.

“One of the things we have done is agreed as a team and a club what the foundations are we need to rebuild. None of that is going to come overnight.

“But I truly believe we have the cattle here and if we give them time and keep feeding them water, nutrients and sunlight hopefully they are going to grow.”

Chris Vui scores for Bristol against Northampton in September

A fortnight ago Saints only lost at Bristol to a last-minute penalty. Last week they bossed Bordeaux-Begles but conceded a late try to cough up their victory chance.

Ahead of this afternoon’s match Boyd has focused not on the quality of the opposition but on “trying to get our own ship sailing in stormy waters”.

Former England star Tom Wood knows the size of the challenge and told his team mates: “If that is scary to you, you shouldn’t be going. If it is not, then it is a great challenge to measure yourself against.”

IRB Women's Rugby World Cup 2014
England celebrate Emily Scarratt’s try during 2014 World Cup final win over Canada in Paris

England’s 2014 World Cup-winning captain Katy Daley-Mclean has retired from international rugby seven months before the 2021 tournament takes place in New Zealand.

The 34-year-old fly-half, who won nine Six Nations titles and 116 caps, says she does not want to be apart from her baby daughter.

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Exeter turn on style for fans and Sam Simmonds declares: “That was for YOU”

Sam Simmonds picked up where he left off in Europe to keep a promise he made to Exeter fans starved of live rugby.

Eight weeks after Chiefs won the Champions Cup and Simmonds was named player of the tournament, the turnstiles of Sandy Park reopened.

Supporters who last saw Exeter play when they were neither kings of Europe nor Premiership champions came hoping the magic had not worn off.

They were rewarded with emphatic confirmation it had not as Chiefs launched their title defence with a six-try masterclass.

Simmonds opened the scoring, was named man of the match and dedicated the win to the fans.

Olly Woodburn caps a fine individual display with one of Exeter’s six tries

“We wanted to put on a performance for our fans who had hurt from not seeing us in the best year we’ve ever had,” he said.

“We didn’t want to be the team that just performed for one year and were happy with that.”

Ironically, the start was as uncomfortable as boss Rob Baxter feared it would be when warning of the potential for distraction having fans back.

Here’s what you missed: Chiefs fans were unable to attend their club’s Champions Cup final triumph

Joe Simmonds put the opening kick-off straight out and Chiefs were turned over at the first scrum.

But Exeter quickly twigged that they needed to bring the fuel to start the fire rather than expect the crowd to light it for them.

Once they did, once Jannes Kirsten and Dave Ewers teamed up to dump an onrushing Warrior on his backside, it was business as usual.

Sam Simmonds has not played for England since 2018

The throaty roar which greeted the turnover was followed by a pin-point kick to the corner by Henry Slade, a line-out drive and try for Sam Simmonds.

Now the place crackled with energy. Tom O’Flaherty cut a peach of a line, Glasgow infringed at the breakdown, Chiefs worked it into the red zone and Jonny Gray dotted down.

Before Glasgow had recovered from one of their old boys scoring against them it happened a second time, Slade and Olly Woodburn unpicking Warriors’ defence, Stuart Hogg doing the rest.

Stuart Hogg dives to score against his former club

There is a swagger about Exeter these days and they really need no help from the opposition.

But Glasgow tossed them a bone all the same, Grant Stewart overthrowing a lineout for Jack Yeandle to bag the bonus point.

Chiefs’ command of the game was summed up by their fifth try. Sam Simmonds not only won a turnover but got up and made 20 metres.

Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter with last season’s Premiership and Champions Cup trophies

The ball came back to Ollie Devoto who dropped it onto his boot for Woodburn to score without breaking stride.

The winger was not done, exploding into the 13 channel to send Jonny Hill over for the final score and give Joe Simmonds his sixth conversion.

It will be tougher in Toulouse next week where Sam Simmonds concedes Exeter will arrive wearing a target.

“But starting the campaign like this sets down a good marker,” he said. “We’re happy with that.”

EXETER – Tries: S Simmonds, Gray, Hogg, Yeandle, Woodburn, Hill. Cons: J Simmonds 6.

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Exeter out to retain Euro crown to give fans party they missed due to pandemic

Exeter Chiefs are on a mission to retain the European Cup next year so their fans get to party like it’s 2020.

England’s champion club tomorrow launch the defence of a title they won for the first time only 57 days ago.

They went on to complete the double by adding the English Premiership a week later yet what was a stunning achievement passed without public celebration due to Covid restrictions.

For the first time since March the club welcome supporters into Sandy Park for the visit of Glasgow, with 2,000 season ticket holders allowed back.

Exeter forward Sam Skinner

And Chiefs star Sam Skinner revealed that the team are determined to give their rugby-starved faithful a taste of what they missed in lockdown.

He said: “We did the double and while there will have been great energy from afar from our fans who could not go out and socialise and live life properly, we missed out on a parade and sharing it with them.

“The whole South West would like to have celebrated in style, so it would make it extra special if we can do it all again this season.”

Chiefs celebrate European Cup glory in an empty stadium in Bristol

Exeter boss Rob Baxter has told his players they will need to adjust to having fans back.

Baxter warned: “The lads have kind of got used to going into their own zone with each other and just focusing on the game at hand.

“They’ll still have to do that, but they’ll need to be aware that there will be distractions about the place now.

Joe Simmonds’ try beats Toulouse behind closed doors at Sandy Park to send Chiefs into European Cup final

“As a team we have to make sure we play in a way that generates that energy amongst the crowd that we can then feed off.”

Skinner says the message has hit home and believes the mental adjustments have been made.

“We are all human beings and you cannot help but notice the silence when you run out and constantly have to generate the energy yourself,” he said.

Another empty stadium, another trophy: Chiefs with Premiership spoils at Twickenham

“The danger is we turn up and expect the crowd to bring all the energy for us. We know we have to put in a performance they are going to want to support and get behind.”

Chiefs make four changes to the side which started the final against Racing 92 at Bristol’s Ashton Gate in mid-October.

Olly Woodburn and Ollie Devoto come into the back line for Jack Nowell and Ian Whitten, with Skinner and captain Jack Yeandle starting up front ahead of England duo Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill.

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Exeter’s wish to take on world set to be granted, according to Euro Clubs’ boss

Double winners Exeter are to get their wish to shoot for global glory, according to European clubs boss Simon Halliday.

Chiefs chairman Tony Rowe greeted his club’s Premiership-Champions Cup triumph by declaring: “I want to be the premier club in the world.”

Halliday responded: “Our hope is that there will be a World Club Champions’ Cup in the 2021/22 season. That is what we are proposing.

“There’s a lot of talking points, a lot of things we need to make certain work for both us and the southern hemisphere.

“But there seems to be a will both in the north and the south to develop something that could be very exciting.

Exeter lift Premiership trophy at Twickenham (above) seven days after winning Champions Cup (below) in Bristol

“Something that is more global and which enhances revenue which, god knows, everyone in the game needs.”

Halliday, chief executive of European Professional Club Rugby, wants to stage the competition once every four years, involving the quarter-finalists from each of the two hemispheres’ cross-border club competitions.

“The beauty of our proposal is we are observing the current calendar,” he added. “We are extracting from within our own tournament window.

Exeter chairman Tony Rowe

European Clubs boss Simon Halliday

“Our proposal also makes sure no additional pressure is put on the elite players, because we are the last people wanting to impose unnecessary matches or tournaments on the resources we rely on for the business that we run.

“But I say ‘let’s be ambitious and think about things that can work’ whilst respecting how we can move forward alongside the international game.”

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Henry Slade puts World Cup final heartache behind him as Exeter conquer Europe

Henry Slade had seen it all before but this time felt different. Very different.

The podium being hastily built on halfway, the trophy placed on its stand, the confetti guns locked and loaded ready to shower the winners.

In Japan he stood and watched South Africa lift the World Cup feeling a pain he thought would last a lifetime.

Eleven months on it was him drenched in bubbly, him wearing the medal. Exeter didn’t trudge disconsolately past the European Champions Cup, they picked it up and took it home.

“It’s been an unreal year,” said the England centre. “That World Cup final was an unbelievable experience but a massive disappointment.

Siya Kolisi and his South Africa team lift the World Cup in Yokohama…

…watched by a beaten and forlorn England team

“I was thinking before this game that winning here would make me feel way better. It does. It is the next best thing.”

That night in Yokohama he was the player tackled for the turnover which brought the try which sealed England’s fate. At Ashton Gate in Bristol the crucial score belonged to him.

“I think back to being a kid watching this tournament and wanting to be in it one day,” added Slade, after Exeter held on with 14 men to complete a fairy tale rise from junior rugby to European champions.

Slade makes ground despite attention from Teddy Iribaren…

…and scoring to put Exeter 28-17 ahead on 46 minutes

“To go and win it is such a special feeling. We’ve had so much disappointment in finals in the last few years.”

In the Premiership showpiece yes, beaten three times in four years, but in Europe this was their first time beyond the quarter-finals, only their 46th match ever in the tournament.

Compare that to the previous two winners. Saracens boast 106 appearances, Leinster 175.

Sam and Joe Simmonds celebrate Slade’s second half try

No wonder Sam Simmonds, Europe’s top try scorer in this longest season, looked overwhelmed to be named player of the year.

“This just doesn’t happen to people like us,” he said, wrapping an arm round his captain and man-of-the-match, younger brother Joe.

They were the lucky two, siblings able to share their greatest rugby day. Covid restrictions put paid to the rest.

Slade, Jack Yeandle, Alec Hepburn, Ben Moon and Gareth Steenson with trophy

Luke Cowan-Dickie, scorer of Exeter’s first try, passes out of a tackle

“Not having our families here to share such an achievement was the cruellest thing,” said boss Rob Baxter, who emerged from an emotional call with wife Jo to admit “I’m a bit all over the place”.

At times so were his team. Having bossed the first quarter to lead 14-0 they let Finn Russell into the contest and nearly paid for it.

Twice he put Simon Zebo in for tries but his buccaneering ways come with risk as well as reward and when he chanced his arm once too often Jack Nowell pounced to intercept and release Slade for his redemption try.

Finn Russell fumbles a pass as Racing fall 14-0 behind early on

Jonny Hill, who had a huge game, is tackled by Camille Chat

Exeter still had a storm to weather, as Racing pulled back to within a point with eight minutes left and Thomas Francis in the bin.

But having spent all but 10 years in the lower leagues they weren’t now about to relinquish club rugby’s biggest prize, sealing victory with captain Joe’s last-gasp kick.

EXETER – Tries: Cowan-Dickie, S Simmonds, Williams, Slade. Cons: J Simmonds 4. Pen: J Simmonds.

RACING – Tries: Zebo 2, Imhoff, Chat. Cons: Russell, Machenaud. Pen: Machenaud.

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Joe Simmonds “crazy” rise from Exeter fan to captaining Chiefs in Euro final

Joe Simmonds will pinch himself before leading Exeter out for today’s Champions Cup final at Ashton Gate.

The last time Chiefs were in Bristol for such a big match, Exeter did not even feature on the sporting map of Britain.

Now the city is 80 minutes from becoming rugby capital of Europe.

Simmonds can still picture his 13-year old self watching Gareth Steenson kick Chiefs into the Premiership for the first time.

A decade on he is captain against France’s Racing 92, with legend Steenson his understudy on the bench.

“It’s crazy,” said the fly-half. “I was at the play-off final in 2010 as a fan. It’s been an incredible ride.”

Gareth Steenson kicks Exeter to 2017 Premiership Final victory – seven years after leading them into the Premiership

And all the more special for the fact he is a local lad playing alongside his big brother, England No.8 Sam.

It reads like a Hollywood script, save for the bit about Covid restrictions preventing the family from being at the game.

But the 23-year-old is determined he and Sam give the story a happy ending by getting the better of Finn Russell and his band of Parisian all-stars.

Sam Simmonds is the tournament’s top try scorer with seven

“Our parents gave us so much growing up, always taking us to matches, and it’s nice to give something back to them,” he said.

“Sam and I used to scrap when we lived together and our mum hated it to be honest. But it got us to where we are now, loving playing together week in, week out.

“Playing with Sam drives me to perform better. If I am honest when I started as captain I was always a bit nervous with him sat watching me.

Joe Simmonds kicks for goal against Northampton during Chiefs run to this season’s Premiership Final

“With me being the younger brother he didn’t want to listen. But I think he now respects me more and knows how proud of him I was when he got capped by England.”

Eddie Jones has yet to come calling for Joe but the England boss will be watching closely to see how he deals with the biggest game of his life.

Simmonds jokes that captaining Exeter is not the hardest job in the world as the decision is always to kick to the corner for the forwards to rumble over, as they invariably do.

Scotland fly-half Finn Russell goes head to head with Simmonds today

How well Racing are able to deal with Chiefs’ 80-minute pick-and-go game will decide the outcome.

Toulouse started well in the semi-final but were worn down long before the end and finished well beaten.

Racing, finalists twice in the past four years, will have learned from that but knowing what it takes to beat Exeter and actually doing it are two different things.

BT Sport is the home of European Rugby. BT Sport 2 will today show Exeter Chiefs v Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup final from 4pm

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Bristol win one cup final and are lined up for a shot at another

Bristol powered to cup final glory last night – then learned they had been controversially lined up for a shot at another one.

In just their second season back in English rugby’s top flight, Pat Lam’s Bears overturned a half-time deficit to beat mighty Toulon on French soil and lift the European Challenge Cup.

They made history along the way, returning the opening kick-off for Harry Randall to score in 15 seconds – the fastest try seen in a Euro final.

No sooner was the match won than Lam was insisting: “This will be the first of many. This is the one we need to get going, this is not the end. It’s just a moment of inspiration that everyone can take hold of.”

Harry Randall rounds off Bristol’s stunning first minute try

Max Malins dots down their second on the hour

The Bears boss then confirmed that they had been put on standby by league chiefs to replace Wasps in next Saturday’s Premiership Final.

Wasps easily beat Bristol in last week’s semi but have since reported seven Covid positives in their camp and will be forced to forfeit their Twickenham place unless it clears up next week.

“Wasps and Exeter thoroughly deserve to be there and that’s the final we want to happen,” said Lam. “But the world we live in with covid we don’t know.

Joyce thought he had another but his score was chalked off for a forward pass

“We’ve been told about it. It’s one of those things. If we’re told we’re in and that’s it we’ll get everyone together and say ‘let’s do it’. But we certainly hope Wasps make it through.”

It is a disturbing state of affairs that Premiership Rugby feel they can just drop this ‘ruling’ on fans who fund the sport through their satellite subscriptions.

Those watching last night’s coverage from Aix-en-Provence had no complaints as Semi Radradra caught the opening kick-off, played a one-two with Alapati Leiua, and gave Randall the scoring pass.

Bristol’s first European trophy came in only their second season back in English rugby’s top flight

Their joy would have turned to worry when Harry Thacker and Joe Joyce had tries chalked off and Toulon rallied to lead at half-time.

But Malins put them back on course, goose-stepping and accelerating his way over, and Callum Sheedy kicked eight from eight to seal Bristol’s first major trophy since 1983.

TOULON – Try: Heem. Con: Carbonel. Pens: Carbonel 4.

BRISTOL – Tries: Randall, Malins. Cons: Sheedy 2. Pens: Sheedy 6.

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Russell relishes Anglo-Scottish rivalry as Champions Cup final gets go-ahead

Finn Russell says there is a Scotland-England element for him to Saturday’s Champions Cup final – and that could spell bad news for Exeter.

Racing playmaker Russell has an enviable record against English opposition in the past three years.

Since the start of 2018 his two appearances against the Eddie Jones-coached auld enemy have brought a win and a draw for Scotland – the latter after a Russell-inspired recovery from 31-0 down.

His six European Cup ties against Premiership opposition, for Glasgow and Racing, have been equally successful – with  five wins and just a single defeat.

Russell and Grant Gilchrist celebrate 2018 Calcutta Cup victory over England

“There is obviously a French-English rivalry to this game,” the Stirling-born 10 said in Corsica yesterday, where Racing are housed in a protected bubble preparing for Saturday’s final.

“But it’s different being a Scottish player in France against an English team. For me there’s a Scottish-English rivalry there.”

Russell tapped into that in the semi-finals when conjuring a sensational late match-winning try assist against Saracens.

Finn Russell of Scotland is closed down by Billy Vunipola and James Haskell of England
Russell is closed down by Billy Vunipola and James Haskell during a Scotland-England clash

And with this game set to get the go-ahead, after both clubs came through testing Covid-clear yesterday, he has an opportunity to climb over another English club and plant The Saltire at the summit of European rugby.

Notwithstanding, of course, that Exeter have not one but four Scots in their squad, including national captain Stuart Hogg!

Russell, 28, insists his focus is exclusively on executing the game plan for a club beaten in two of the past four European Cup finals.

Russell provided inspiration for Racing’s late semi-final winning try against Saracens

“You can’t look at anything else to get you going or drive you,” he said. “It’s how we can play to win. This is a massive moment for the club.”

Racing are leaving nothing to chance, having feared a Covid outbreak a fortnight ago would derail their hopes.

The Parisian outfit was forced to postpone its Top 14 match against La Rochelle 11 days ago after nine members of staff tested positive for coronavirus.

Virimi Vakatawa is mobbed after scoring for Racing against Saracens earlier in this season’s tournament

They were able to return to action last weekend, but then immediately flew to Corsica to escape the rising infection rate in the French capital.

“I believe we are all going to be okay for the weekend,” said Russell.

Exeter know the threat posed by the mercurial Russell but in what he terms the “biggest game in the club’s history”, director of rugby Rob Baxter says they will address it as a team.

Jack Nowell is available for Exeter after injury

“It won’t be a one shot thing,” said Baxter, who has wing Jack Nowell back fit and available for selection. “There are things we are going to have to do as a team. We are not zoned in on one guy.”

“We are not zoned in on one guy,” said Baxter, who has wing Jack Nowell back fit and available for selection. “There are things we are going to have to do as a team.”

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Hogg primed to tackle Russell before welcoming him back into Scotland squad

Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell may be friends reunited in the Scotland squad – but they will be at each other’s throats this weekend.

The pair come at Saturday’s Champions Cup final from opposing sides with Hogg spearheading Exeter’s ‘double’ bid and Russell pulling the strings for Racing 92.

Fourteen years have passed since Hogg last played against Russell – half a lifetime during which he has played 76 times for his country and toured with the Lions.

Yet it is the move to Devon which the Scotland captain says has taken his game to another level.

“I came down here to improve myself as a player and a person and get in a position to contribute to winning trophies,” said the fullback.

Racing 92 fly-half Finn Russell has Exeter in his sights this weekend

“We’re in a perfect position right now. This is a huge, massive opportunity and I’m absolutely buzzing.

“I’m playing some of the best rugby I’ve played in a long, long time. Of all my rugby decisions this is hands down the best I’ve ever made.”

Everything is going for Rob Baxter’s Chiefs right now, with confirmation yesterday that lock forward Jonny Hill faces no additional punishment for his no-arms clear out on Bath’s Taulupe Faletau at the weekend.

Hogg: ‘I have no doubt that if we faithfully execute our game plan we can come away with the trophy’

But that is no surprise to Hogg, who has kept a close eye on Exeter since first being approached by the club in 2017.

“With the talent here I knew it was only a matter of time,” he said. “I have no doubt that if we faithfully execute our game plan we can come away with the trophy.”

Russell will have plenty to say about that, which won’t surprise Hogg either, as “he’s one of the most naturally gifted rugby players I’ve ever come across”.

Russell’s magic steered Racing 92 past Saracens in last month’s semi-final

Hogg said: “Finn is the one guy we have to be wary of as he can change a game in a heartbeat and, without a shadow of a doubt, will be on his ‘A’ game.”

What Racing need to bear in mind is that Exeter will too. Very few teams that Chiefs suffocate with their defensive blanket live to tell the tale.

Bristol’s European Challenge Cup final against Toulon, in Aix on Friday, will be played in front of a crowd after authorities in France granted tournament bosses permission to sell 1,000 tickets.

But Exeter-Racing remains behind closed doors at Ashton Gate.

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