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Chris Bentley: 'We restored our pride against the jet-setting stars of Leinster'

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: January 24, 2013

Chris Bentley

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BACK when I was a professional rugby player, a lot could be learnt about your opponents by the method they arrived at the game.

You could spot a team of also-rans as they would arrive in dribs and drabs in a fleet of cars, a decent side would march into the ground from an unmarked coach, while a top team may well have a personalised coach – as we do at Chiefs.

I got my first hint that something big was taking place last weekend when the manager of Exeter International Airport, Matt Roach, called me up to explain that the Chiefs' opponents had just flown in on their private jet!

Boasting a squad littered with Irish internationals, not to mention a decent quota of British & Irish lions, our very own Exeter Chiefs were feasting at the King's table as Leinster came to town.

I for one was excited about this game. I was also concerned that the memories of our previous European defeat in front of 18,000 baying Frenchmen might still be lingering.

We did very well in our first encounter with Leinster. In all honesty, it was our Everest and their underestimation that led to a close match that we might have edged.

Looking at the game we had in front of us, Leinster were not displaying the complacency of Dublin and were at their full international strength.

Indeed, the signs were ominous when, within the first five minutes, the Irish got an early score. However, our squad had learnt from the Clermont game and, as opposed to being rocked on their heels, the boys rolled up their sleeves and dug deep to produce a defiant display of pace, power and skill. Such was the quality of our game that we restored our pride and confirmed that we belong on this stage.

With Leinster having to push for the bonus point that four tries allow and the Chiefs continuing with the 'total rugby' blueprint, the game served up a fantastic spectacle. Another 10,000-capacity Sandy Park crowd will recall this match for years to come as a real 'I was there moment'.

Don't get me wrong, as a former 19-stone lock, I love a war in the mud where wingers freeze as forwards fight, but the way the Chiefs have gone about their business this season as a whole has been magnificent.

Playing European heavyweights, you would have forgiven the team battening down the hatches and playing a conservative game. Rob, Ali and all the coaching staff have inspired the confidence and self-belief to attack every game and hunt tries that even has an old dog like me cheering for all I'm worth. The great news is that this hasn't gone unnoticed.

Those of you who have regularly kept up with this column will know that I'm a huge champion of our boys getting international call-ups. I still feel we are a few players short in the EPS (Elite Player Squad). It's the same with Welsh selection – what more does Phil Dollman need to do? Although he is now English-qualified too! It's even the same with the Scottish squad – believe it or not, Hoani Tui is eligible!

However, I was over the moon to see that our very own head coach may well be jetting off with England this summer. With so many English coaches soon to be on Lions duty, Rob has been mooted as a temporary forwards coach for the national side, which would be an amazing feather in his cap. When you consider that we were playing in the Championship just three seasons ago, to be in the Heineken Cup, have victories over every Premiership team – Bath may well come this weekend – and a head coach tipped to be touring with England, then you know the Chiefs are doing a lot right.

Mind you, right now, it's not just our Chiefs who are riding high. Looking to our sporting neighbours up at the real St James's Park, it's great to see our round ball pals running well in npower League Two.

The travails of Exeter City are well-publicised and it's great to see Paul Tisdale and his team emulating the same blueprint of silencing doubters and inspiring the faithful, although I must admit his fashion sense is well ahead of Rob – a cravat on the touch line, anyone?

Now that I've started on my soapbox, I'll continue, and right now, Exeter really has got it good.

Exeter College are planning a new state-of-the-art indoor sporting facility, while just down the road Bicton College is also undergoing something of a revolution. You add that to the UK's No. 1-rated university and it's fair to say right now that Exeter is a pretty special place to be.

This weekend sees the return of the LV= Cup and a stage for some of the fringe players to showcase their skills and step up.

I've been a tad disheartened to see some fans dub these fixtures as a 'couple of weeks off'. It is true that some of the frontline Premiership guys may not be on the team sheet, but the next two weeks are of vital importance to Exeter Chiefs.

Despite all of my hyperbole, the fact remains we're in the middle of a losing streak. The guys coming in can hopefully set the record straight and get the winning habit back.

There is also still a real prospect of winning some silverware, and I hope that the mix of youngsters and old boys can continue the run that saw wins over Ospreys and London Welsh.

Having seen Jack Nowell catapult himself into Premiership and Heineken Cup selection on the back of a couple of sterling performances, I'm excited to see who will do the same in this block of fixtures.

There is, however, one man whose first XV debut has me more excited than most, and that's Kai Horstmann. With proven Premiership pedigree, 'The Horse' has had to endure nearly five months away from the pitch following a hamstring injury. To finally see him run out in Chiefs colours will be a great fillip, as I know the banter has been relentless from some of the younger guys in the squad!

And finally, following 21 months of solid service to the Chiefs cause, I've managed to wangle a holiday.

Mrs Bentley and I are jetting off to Rome for a short break. It will be interesting to see just how much the culinary and cultural delights of the Italian capital affect my waistline and quality of next week's column!

Until the next time, stare al sicuro e godetevi il vostro di rugby.

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