Exeter Chiefs lock James Hanks paid a glowing tribute to the club’s supporters who made the trip to the south of France to cheer on their heroes in the Heineken Cup.
Around 1,000 fans took planes, trains, boats and automobiles to reach Toulon and create a special atmosphere in the French city before and after last Saturday’s game, and at the Stade Mayol itself.
Exeter lost to the defending European champions 32-20, but they gave their all and received a standing ovation from both sets of supporters as they did a lap of honour around the pitch at the end of a thrilling contest.
“Our away support has always been fantastic, and it made a massive difference to see the fans before we had the team run the night before the game. They gave us a big cheer as we walked into the stadium,” said Hanks, who has been a stalwart of the Chiefs’ team during the past eight years.
“To see them all enjoying themselves was just fantastic, and long may it continue.
“We respect them so much, and we are so proud of those guys for being there for us all the way, even when we are losing and don’t perform as well as we should.
“At the end of the game, we just wanted to say thank you to the fans and we weren’t expecting anything else. It was great.”
Hanks, who made his first Heineken Cup start of the season after missing the opening weeks of the campaign with a broken collarbone, admitted the match against star-studded Toulon was right up there amongst many amazing days he has enjoyed in an Exeter shirt.
“It was a pretty special occasion,” said the 29-year-old, who is fast approaching 200 appearances for the club. Obviously, we were disappointed with the result. We had opportunities in the game, and we weren’t quite as clinical as we probably hoped to be.
“We didn’t quite take the chances that came our way, and you don’t generally get too many chances against the best teams in Europe, and that is a big learn for us. But I think for most of the game we were there or thereabouts, and just a few set-piece issues let us down a little bit when we really tried to force the game.
“The guys put in a lot of effort, and compared to where we were five years ago, the club have come a long, long way. This is where you want to be,” Hanks added.
“You want to be testing yourself against the best players in the world and playing on the big stages, and this was certainly one of them, and maybe we didn’t quite get what we wanted out of the game, but everyone is pretty proud of the club and where we have been. However, I think we can still push on and get better.”
It was the second successive week in which Exeter had run Toulon very close, after losing 14-9 at Sandy Park seven days earlier, and Hanks said: “We are not too far away, but the small margins that count out there on the pitch can lead to big gains for us, and we have got to keep paying attention to those small details.
“Toulon were very, very clinical with the chances they had in the first half, and we weren’t, but that is rugby at the highest level and you have got to take any chances you get.”
Exeter return to the bread and butter of the Premiership on Saturday, when Newcastle Falcons visit Sandy Park, but it is a crucial game for the Chiefs as they seek to end a run of five straight defeats in all competitions.
After losing to Saracens and Bath in their last two league matches, they need to defeat Dean Richards’ men to consolidate their place in the top six in the table.
“It is a massive game,” said Hanks. “The Premiership is really, really important to us, and you don’t get to play big games against the likes of Toulon if you don’t perform well in the Premiership.
“We want to make sure we are in this kind of situation again, playing against the biggest teams, and we will make sure we prepare well for what is another huge game for us on Saturday.”