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Tom Johnson: French trip will hardly be a flight of fancy but at least the cheese is good

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 09, 2013

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We’re all really looking forward to our trip to Clermont this weekend, as we get back into Heineken Cup action.

The boys all really enjoy our games abroad and especially in France, where we’ve done reasonably well in the last three years.

It’s a different environment and it’s nice to break the day-to-day cycle of training here and playing in the Premiership.

And, when there’s a flight involved, it always gets the boys excited – although Brett Sturgess isn’t with us, after he broke his arm, which is a shame because we do enjoy winding him up.

He’s a terrible flyer, so we’ll always try to sit round him and make the odd comment.

We flew quite a bit when we were in the Championship, to Leeds, Rotherham, places like that. Those little short hops are the scariest ones.

You get on one of those planes with twin props, which look like they’ve just come out the Second World War, and those are the ones which really get to people like Sturgy. They just don’t look like they should be up in the air.

All you have to say is ‘that wing doesn’t look right’, or ‘I don’t like that noise’ and he’s all over the place.

We know it’s going to be really tough when we get there. When Clermont played here, I’ve never seen a team turn it on like they did in the second half. There wasn’t a great deal we could do about it.

I’ve never been on a pitch before where it felt like such a dramatic difference from one half to the other.

At the moment, a game like this feels a bit like a break because there isn’t the same sort of pressure on us. The pressure we feel in the Heineken Cup is that which we put on ourselves, whereas in the Premiership there’s pressure because of relegation and obviously we want to get into the top six and top four.

We do an awful lot of analysis for the Premiership, not that we don’t do it for the European games, but you don’t see the players quite so often, so it tends to be more on a one-off basis.

But we’ll enjoy it, France is a great place to play, and obviously there’s all the cheese and baguettes to eat.

And they are very good hosts; certainly, the after-match meals are something to behold.

We went over to Bourgoin in the Amlin Cup in the first year and had a really good trip. Last year we narrowly lost to Stade Francais, but still had a great time. So the team really love to go over and play in France.

The travelling support we have is brilliant as well, and it doesn’t require a lot of them to make a lot of noise, with the chants we’ve got. They all come and have a drink with us after the game, so it feels very much like an Exeter-on-tour outing.

I’d like to think that we’ll get to the stage where these are very stressful times because we want to be getting out of our pool and progressing into the latter stages the tournament. But, this being our first time in it, we’re happy with how we’ve done: winning twice against Scarlets and narrowly losing to Leinster, and we weren’t a million miles away when Clermont came here.

So we’re not on some sort of jolly by any means, and we will look forward to it and really give it a go.

Apparently it’s an unbelievable stadium, a couple of the guys have played out there before in their careers, with a real gladiatorial feel about it and a great atmosphere.

It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any handbags over there, as well, that’s always tasty in France.

From a forward’s point of view, it’s going to be a challenge because they are always really big boys in the French league. They put a lot of emphasis on the size of their players. Whatever happens, I think the game has come at a good time for us, following three tough Premiership games.

We’ve got four weeks now before the league starts again, with the Heineken and then the LV= Cup.

Hopefully it can be a time when the squad get a lot of game-time under their belts. Then we can come back and sort out the last block of games in the Premiership.

Talking of which, we were probably more disappointed about the Bath draw the week before than losing against Northampton last weekend.

It wasn’t as though we didn’t put the effort in or didn’t try and play. Perhaps, if anything, we tried to play a bit too much in the wrong areas and coughed up a bit of ball, but we really took it to the Saints in the last part of the game.

It was only in the last few minutes that they scored a few points and it became hard for us to get the bonus point.

As far as a loss goes, it’s probably a reasonably positive loss. I don’t think there was a lot more we could have given against Saints, maybe we just have to learn to box a bit cleverer.

We’ll certainly have to do that if we’re going to get the better of Clermont.

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