Hayes full of praise for class of Clermont
Exeter Chiefs skipper Tommy Hayes believes his side came up against a quality of rugby at Clermont Auvergne on Saturday that they have not faced in the Aviva Premiership before.
The Chiefs fought bravely at the Stade Marcel Michelin against a star-studded line-up, and were only 20-3 down after 60 minutes, but four tries in the last quarter gave the final scoreline a rather cruel appearance.
It also ended the Chiefs' hopes of reaching the quarter-finals of either the Heineken Cup or Amlin Cup this season, while the win stretched Clermont's unbeaten home record in all competitions to an astonishing 54 games.
"The level of rugby we were exposed to was probably up another notch from what we have experienced in the Premiership over the last couple of years, and that is certainly not to knock anything in the Premiership," said the Irishman.
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"The same as when we got up into the top flight from the Championship, we knew we had to kick on, in terms of what we do as forwards and backs, how we work together, our kicking game, and in every element of our game.
"We have come up against a team who are probably favourites to win the competition, and they have just exposed us to a higher level right across the board – their kicking game, how the forwards pick and drive, their momentum building, taking the chances given to them, their offloading game and their work in contact.
"All is not lost for us though. We were in a fight, and in some ways the scoreboard does not reflect how much we were in the game, because we had our periods when we didn't finish off, but they certainly took their chances, and that was probably the main difference.
"It is not completely downbeat for us and there is certainly stuff for us to build on, but there is a reality to it as well."
Exeter started both halves of the game well, and had opportunities to score which they did not take, whereas Clermont were ruthless in the finishing department and ran in six tries, as they did at Sandy Park in October.
"That was where their quality shone through in the game," explained Hayes.
"We created chances and had a couple of line breaks and a turnover from our own line which we didn't manage to turn into points, whereas if they got an opportunity like that, they took it."
Exeter have suffered setbacks along the way on their incredible journey since winning promotion to the Premiership in 2010, but they have always learned from them, and Hayes is optimistic that will once again be the case as they head into their final Heineken Cup group match - a daunting test at home to European champions Leinster on Saturday.
"I certainly hope we will learn from it. Saturday was probably the biggest crowd we have played in front of as a club, and one of the highest levels of teams we have played against," said Hayes.
"Experience is only good for you if you learn from it, so I certainly hope we can learn from it, and take what positives we can from it and use it to benefit us and make us a better team.
"I don't think the atmosphere intimidated us at all on Saturday, but we did make some errors which have perhaps just crept into our game a little bit lately, which we need to iron out so we are not letting teams off the hook the whole time."
Munsterman Hayes is relishing the prospect of coming up against a Leinster side desperate for a win, ideally with a bonus point, to keep their title defence going as one of the best two runners-ups in the Heineken Cup pools.
"It is a going to be a huge occasion for us," said the experienced second-row forward.
"They have won the Heineken Cup in each of the last two seasons, and they are not in as strong a position in the group as I think they would have liked to have been.
"They have obviously got a lot of quality about them, so they are not going to come to Sandy Park just to make up numbers.
"They are going to be scrapping for what they can, and it is up to us to stand up to that really and try and end our European season on a high."
Hayes added: "As an Irishman, there is maybe a little bit of added spice to the fixture for me, but it is all about the club and the squad really, and we want to try and get as much out of the game as we possibly can."