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Dublin: -1°C Tuesday 2 March 2021

‘Exeter are English rugby’s version of Munster and Connacht rolled into one’

At one stage they were not even the best team in Devon but today Exeter Chiefs can become the No1 side in Europe.

Exeter Chiefs' players celebrate their Champions Cup semi-final win over Toulouse.
Exeter Chiefs' players celebrate their Champions Cup semi-final win over Toulouse.
Image: PA

The Munster of England

IN A SENSE, it almost feels like the year 2000 again, everything about Exeter being so Munster-like, this coming together of home-grown heroes, this charge to a first European final, this story that is bigger than sport.

What we’re looking at isn’t just rugby; it’s a love affair between a region and its team. Geographically distant from the capital, historically unsuccessful, you could understand if resentment lingered when figures like those produced by Eurostat, an EU data agency, outlined how inner London was the richest area in northern Europe and neighbouring Cornwall was statistically the second poorest.

In places like this, isolation often reinforces your identity, and this was fuelled by what happened in the ‘70s when Exeter were considered one of England’s best sides but never had the chance to prove it, as one club after another refused to travel that far south to play them.

For a long time, for what seemed like forever, if you wanted to make it, you had to cross geographic as well as imaginary borders to do so – local Devon boys, Phil Vickery and Graham Dawe heading up the M5 to Gloucester and Bath respectively in pursuit of their dream.

While the sight of one of your own making it big became a source of pride in the area, eventually it dawned on a group of committee men that they could house this talent at home.

At the time, Exeter were mixing with the best that Walsall, Havant, Clifton, Redruth, Plymouth and Aspatria could offer in the fourth tier of English rugby, winning promotion from the Courage League Division 4 in the same season the European Cup was born.

Today Exeter Chiefs face Racing 92 in the final of that competition. Is this a game of rugby or a morality tale?

Really, this is like Connacht in 2016, like Munster in the noughties,” says Rob Kitson, the Guardian’s rugby correspondent who is about to publish a book on Exeter’s fairy-tale rise. “The reality is that people here have more in common with rural Ireland than with England’s bigger cities. I live here, I’m a country boy and if I was to stand up and wave a placard for anything, it would be for the joy of seeing a rural community come together like this. It has been a remarkable story.”

And it wouldn’t have happened without a romantic realist at the helm.

henry-slade Exeter have more in common with Munster than with most English teams. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The messiah – a rugby mixture of Anfield’s bootroom, Wenger and Cloughie

It is so easy to make a basic assumption about rugby, that in its essence it is the game written about in the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly books: privileged, based around private schools, governed by old men. This was undoubtedly a status quo in every rugby-playing country at one stage or another but it also ignores the fact that the game means a lot to people from every socio-economic background.

Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs represent this other world. In soccer parlance, there isn’t really any one manager you can compare him to. Part of his story reminds you of the boys from the Anfield bootroom – Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan – serving their time at the club, understanding its values, studiously thinking of ways to make the place better.

Yet there’s also a touch of Brian Clough in there too, in terms of his transfer policy, the way he saw talent in others that they didn’t even know they possessed. There were men like Ulster-born centre, Ian Whitten, who starts today, and Dungannon’s Gareth Steenson, who he picked up from Cornish Pirates and who went on to score over 3’000 points for the club.

We could go on. When their scrum needed steadying midway through the last decade, Tomas Francis was brought in from London Scottish to shore it up. A year later Francis won the first of his 42 Welsh caps.

There’s more. No one really rated Thomas O’Flaherty at Ospreys. You wouldn’t hear a bad word said about him now. For Francis, read Harry Williams, another prop, signed from Jersey Reds. These are latter-day, rugby equivalents of Clough’s Forest misfits, Kenny Burns, Gary Birtles, Larry Lloyd and Frank Clark, who won their own European Cup in 1979 and ’80.

Then there’s the Wenger influence, the investment in youth, the trust Baxter placed in local lads, Ben Moon, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, at a time when respected pundits like Stuart Barnes were tipping them for relegation battles.

rob-baxter-and-sam-skinner Baxter (left) is a mixture of Paisley, Clough and Wenger. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

You could say the Wenger comparison stops there as the Frenchman was a purist whereas Exeter’s game-plan is supposedly simple and crude, based around getting the ball into the opposition 22, mauling teams to death, boring them into submission.

Yet you’d be ignoring history if you rolled out this cliché. After first winning promotion to the Premiership a decade ago, their offloading game was a hell of  a lot easier on the eye than the dross every other English team were serving up at the time.

Years of incremental progress followed and just when it looked as if teams had figured Exeter out, they subtly evolved, Francis and Thomas Waldrom adding a bit of grunt to their pack while Slade and Nowell began to mature.

By this stage, they were drawing on the expertise from the nearby University of Exeter, who were analysing the players’ GPS data. “We don’t want drones, we want people who can think and play rugby,” Rob Hunter, their forwards coach, said. Ali Hepher, the tactical brains of the whole operation, was singing from the same hymn sheet, fooling the rest of the country into thinking the team were one-dimensional, when in reality they had players who were shrewd decision-makers.

Progress was steady, the first five seasons in the Premiership seeing them finish mid-table – between fifth and eighth – before they moved up another level again in 2016, reaching their first Premiership final. They lost that. But a discarded Ulsterman sorted them out the next year.

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The Irish Connection

Where do you start with the Gareth Steenson story? Is it in Bristol, 2010 – the same city they’ll travel to for today’s final? Way back 10 years ago, Steenson and Exeter travelled with a skinny 9-6 lead from the first leg of their promotion play-off, everything pointing to a bruising.

After all, Bristol had the history, home advantage, the higher budget. But they didn’t have a guy with a point to prove. Steenson slotted six kicks and two drop-goals that evening as Exeter unexpectedly won promotion to the top-flight for the first time.

But that’s not where we begin. It isn’t even in 2017, Twickenham, Premiership final day, Steenson’s last-gasp penalty to bring the game to extra-time, his decisive kick landing the biggest trophy in the club’s history.

No, the perfect beginning of the Steenson story actually has an appalling ending. He was 22 and sitting in Mark McCall’s office at Ravenhill when he was told he wasn’t wanted. “They said ‘Look Gareth, we’re going to be keeping David [Humphreys], we don’t think there’s anything here for you’.”

gareth-steenson Steenson celebrates Exeter's Premiership win in 2017. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Fourteen years and over 3,000 points later, it’s fair to say Steenson has bounced back from the disappointment, leaving Belfast with a pair of boots in his hands and a few far-off dreams in his head. Rotherham and the English Championship was where he ended up; then the Cornish Pirates where a match-winning kick against Exeter in Camborne persuaded Baxter to give him a call.

I think my whole career has been built on being told I wasn’t good enough,” he said in a 2017 interview. “You’ve got to overcome things. If you’re handed stuff you don’t appreciate it. My attitude is go out and enjoy it, because if you enjoy something you tend to be good at it.”

His attitude embodies the Exeter story. Like fellow Ulsterman, Whitten, and former club captain – Munsterman Tom Hayes, Steenson’s career has been a tale of proving people wrong. “It was very difficult to be told: ‘Either go and get a job or try something in the lower leagues.’ It’s easy to sit here now but at the time it was tough.”

One thing that could have made life harder was his stature, 87kg fitting into his 5ft 10in frame. In a sport filled with giants, how would he cope?  “I’ve always been stereotyped and told I wasn’t good at defending,” he once said. “And I don’t like to be told I’m not good at something. I now treat it very much like my kicking. If I want to be the best kicker I’ve got to practise it. If I want to be a confident tackler the same applies. I’ve tried to have a different mindset: to go and attack tackles and enjoy defending.”

In Baxter, he had found an unlikely soul-mate, a man who studied his stats on a Monday morning, appreciating their value but who also knew that when it came to a Saturday afternoon, no one was better than Steeno at getting his men to the correct psychological pitch. “Steeno’s emotional energy has been key for us over the decade,” Baxter said earlier this year. “He is a leader.”

Today will be his penultimate game in an Exeter shirt. Having never won an Ireland cap, he could instead win the next best thing. “I see it very much for what it is; Ireland don’t pick outside their country. I would rather play for a team where you’re appreciated,” he said four years ago.

“The only thing I would probably be disappointed with is I never was given a chance to go to a training session, I was never looked at.”

An audience of millions will watch him today.

The moneyman

You could argue it could have started earlier, this Exeter story. But the absence of a motorway linking the city to the rest of England’s south-west meant no half-decent side wanted to come and play them. Then, when the ‘80s came and their good players either retired or moved on, the team who aim to become the best in Europe today struggled to even be the No1 side in their own county, winning the Devon Senior Cup just three times.

Significantly, though, when English rugby finally replaced friendlies with a league system in 1987, Exeter had the foresight to join the party, accepting an invite to play in the third tier. And that – bar one season when they were relegated – was where they stayed until a man called Tony Rowe came along.

tony-rowe-and-thomas-waldrom Tony Rowe after Exeter's Premiership win in 2017. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Having made his millions in telecoms, Rowe knew a deal when he saw one, hence why the quaint but outdated County ground, located in the city centre, was sold at the height of the property boom, Sandy Park – on the outskirts of town – becoming their new, purpose-built home.

Better again, Rowe turned the stadium into a money-making conference centre as Exeter became rugby’s most prudent operators, the only club to make a profit in England over the last decade.

Saracens were everything Exeter were not and neither Rowe nor Baxter have shied away from saying what they think about their bitter rivals’ policy of breaching the salary cap. “Saracens should have their titles taken away,” Rowe told Kitson for his forthcoming book, Exe men, the extraordinary rise of Exeter Chiefs. “Their names should be taken off the Premiership trophy for the seasons they won it while being in breach of the cap.”

Rowe and Exeter have every reason to be annoyed. Four times they made it to the Premiership decider; three times they’ve lost, on each occasion to Saracens. So this season’s pursuit of a double – today’s European final is followed by next Saturday’s Premiership final – is meaningful. “It’s not a dream, it’s an ambition,” Rowe said. “I always think that if you’re realistic about your ambitions you can achieve them.”

We’re about to find out.

Exe Men: The Extraordinary Rise of Exeter Chiefs by Robert Kitson is
published by Polaris on 26 November.

Order it here

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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