Hanging in there. Just. Exeter’s Champions Cup campaign is alive for another week after Jack Nowell enjoyed a perfect comeback.
The English flag has been flying at half-mast in Europe but the Chiefs still have a chance of joining Saracens in the quarter-finals.
They must now beat Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday while either earning a bonus point or preventing the Irish side earning one of their own. Only three teams have achieved such a feat.
However the majestic return of Nowell should provide Rob Baxter’s side with an extra whiff of hope. On his first appearance since November, the England winger scored a try inside four minutes against a sluggish Castres.
He started at full back and, showing no signs of a hangover from his hamstring injury, proved that he could become a No 15 contender for the Six Nations.
‘It was great to see Jack back and playing so well,’ said Baxter. ‘We saw him picking and going — getting his hands on the ball — way more than a full back normally would.
‘The way the game went suited him. We looked like a team that had multiple ways of hurting their defence, which was very pleasing. Jack can play pretty much anywhere across the back line. It doesn’t really matter what number is on his back.’
It was an all-action display from the 25-year-old. In defence, he won turnovers that an openside flanker would settle for, yet his most impressive work was with ball in hand.
He burst through tackles, jinked around defenders and showed a turn of speed for the Chiefs’ opening try.
Castres drew level in the ninth minute through Taylor Paris, but from thereon in the Devonians were unstoppable. With Tomas Francis providing a powerful platform at the scrum, the backs ripped open the slow French defence.
‘We gained good momentum from our carries and, on the whole, it was about keeping Castres moving,’ added Baxter.
Collecting a highlight-reel offload from Ollie Devoto, Joe Simmonds scored Exeter’s second try in the 17th minute.
Should they go on to upset the odds in Limerick, they will become the first side to reach the knockout stages after failing to win in the first three rounds.
‘We’ll talk this week about testing ourselves in one of Europe’s iconic venues against one of Europe’s iconic teams,’ said Baxter.
Further tries from Jonny Hill and Tom O’Flaherty secured a potentially crucial bonus point.
Munster will not roll over so easily though. Nor will they demonstrate the thuggery of Tudor Stroe, who was shown a red card for a forearm to the head of Devoto.
Thomas Combezou had pulled a try back for the French champions, but Exeter’s numerical advantage kicked in as Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie scored two final tries.
Once the rout was completed, focus soon turned to the next challenge. Exeter have two fewer days of preparation than Munster, who played on Friday night, but Baxter cannot change his hand.
‘It is a strange one,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t quite seem like the best scheduling you could offer to the English Premiership side, but we’ll take it.’