Exeter Chiefs are the Champions of England
It’s a sentence that nobody pre-2015 expected to be written and yet Tony Rowe (Exeter’s Chairman) has been planning for this moment for at least 10 years. In 2009 he saw an opportunity to follow through on his dream of creating a rugby dynasty and it was a moment in time that went under the radar for many rugby fans. Hardly a blip on the national seismometer was felt when an ex-player was chosen to coach his old team halfway through the regular season. However, in the quiet South West of England a rugby giant had been in slumber and they’d finally found the man who could wake it up.
We should all know the story of Exeter in some form or other, a Championship side come good, rising through the ranks to become champions of England. But this isn’t a fairy-tale story out of the blue like Leicester City, this is a story of growth and positive trendlines on various graphs with smart transfers and fantastic coaching. Fans of Exeter will know that this club has always had these grand ambitions and I don’t think Tony Rowe has ever tried to keep them quiet. My Grandad, a man who once played for Exeter and still lives in Devon, confidently assured me early on that not only was Tony Rowe a smart businessman but that he wanted Exeter to be the best in Europe one day. I nodded along in 2010 thinking that they had a long way to go unsure that they could ever compete with the big money now kicking about. However, there was a belief, even back then, in Devon that something special was happening and that the structures they were building would only get better.
The first step was the internal promotion of a phenomenon and a club man in Rob Baxter, win or lose he’s unflappably honest and forthright with his observations. His press conferences and interviews aren’t a particularly hard-line style that often gets praised in the sporting arena. Instead, he takes a completely genuine approach towards his love for the game and Exeter Rugby Club explaining things almost as if he were an outsider. But as soon as you scratch the surface of this perfect analyser you see nothing but his drive and love for the rugby club that he has devoted a large portion of his life towards. The ethos that he has created is probably going to be looked at in the future as, if not unobtainable then, unique. It’s one that has ignored big money marquee signings and instead focused on precise roles that are required for Exeter to build a winning squad. Smart signings of players that don’t appear in the limelight and in some cases are written off as ending their career. Be it for the personality of the individual off the pitch or the dynamics of their play on it, Baxter has found a way to create a team that is incredibly cohesive so much so they have taken on all comers and won.
This high level of squad depth is a huge part of Exeter’s success and the fact that they have two top level 15s within their wider squad is incredibly powerful. Baxter has repeatedly cited this a major factor when setting up for big games. He can tell his other training players to play as Wasps would and these top tier players will then run the ball from anywhere and try and simulate Cipriani’s hitchkick. If you have a squad of 30 top tier players you are able to train and prepare in a much more competent way than if you only have a top tier squad of 23. This is further backed up by the fact that Exeter have been repeatedly winning the A league with players like Campagnaro and Tom Johnson playing part roles. This is part of the development process and creates a club inclusivity that if you play at any level for Exeter you are part of something bigger. Imagine the squad that keeps Campagnaro out of it for so long that he has to get game time in the A league; it would have to be stacked, and it is – but not with big names. Now let’s have a very brief history lesson.
Focused on Bristol being the likely winners of the championship the established big boys were happy that the world of rugby was business as usual. Big money spending was gradually increasing but overall it was a natural trend given the increased market and professionalism involved in the game. They, rightly, were focused on themselves, building their squads and skills for the coming season. Even so, it probably came as a small shock when they saw the news that it would be Exeter, not Bristol joining them in the Premiership next season. But, upsets happen in playoff rugby so the shock was neutered by the sense that they would go straight back down and in the media during pre-season Exeter were written off. Coming second in the Championship was not enough they were told and they would never survive at the higher premiership level.
Exeter started their campaign in 2010 unafraid with nothing to lose. Even to this day, Exeter have held onto the label of the underdog and never was it truer than in 2010. Predictions had Exeter getting relegated at worst to scraping past the drop on losing bonus points at best. Exeter finished 8th out of 12 a good 20 points clear of the drop and the fans started to understand that the Premiership was where they belonged.
A few years pass and Exeter have maintained their position within the premiership and wholly improved their image within rugby. In fact, in their second year they reach the lofty heights of 5th only just missing out on reaching the playoffs. It was a slow grind but the loyalties kept towards players that had brought Exeter so far were paying off. Hayes, Steenson, Dollman, Matt Jess and especially Scaysbrook were showing their class match after match. Scaysbrook was nominated for Aviva player of the season 2011-12 and it was extremely obvious that nobody could play this team expecting an easy win. This ability to cause upsets using bonus point rugby won them fans throughout the league.
Name brand talent and club spending are not the be all and end all for winning in rugby. This is not to say that Exeter players are not dripping with talent and ability, no. But it is to say that held up to individuals in other teams you might not make them your first pick. For example, you would probably not pick Luke Cowan Dickie (LCD) over Hartley or Schalk Brits. Or in the backs choose Dollman or Devoto over Le Roux, Beale or Watson and yet these players are the backbone of Exeter Chiefs success. With a squad depth that shows you don’t need to run at a loss to be competitive Exeter are right now at the pinnacle of sporting achievement and are aiming higher still. They’ve proven that expansion and ambition don’t need to come from purely external factors. But crucially that change started from within can be enough to snowball towards success.
The biggest examples that come to mind are in the forwards. Geoff Parling, Thomas Waldrom and Mitch Lees (special mention to J. Salvi). These names are unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of a traveling pack and at certain points in time have all been wrongly condemned to the scrap heap. Waldrom was touted as on a downward trend when he moved to Exeter in 2014 and at 31 it didn’t seem a bad assessment. Parling also had a similar tag in 2015, dropped from the England squad and in no man’s land career wise again at the age of 31. Baxter saw their potential and experience along with a desire to continue playing the game with ambition. As soon he gave them a glimpse of opportunity in a positive environment they grabbed on with both hands and refused to let go. This hunger and unity has helped create an awesome attacking maul and a secure lineout that is fundamental to Exeter’s success.
Mitch Lees’ acquisition to the Exeter forward pack is a bit different from Parling and Waldrom. Playing for London Welsh in 2014 he was snapped up before they achieved promotion. In what now looks like clairvoyance, Baxter and his team managed to acquire Lees in April pre the playoffs. As someone looking back I don’t know the inner workings of this acquisition but it is obvious that Baxter is wholly confident in Championship players being able to perform in the Premiership under his tutelage. Mitch Lees has now gone on from playing in the championship to winning in the Premiership Final. For any other rugby team this would be a story unto itself but for Exeter, they have these in abundance.
Baxter’s balance in the forwards has always been a strength especially the stability of their rolling maul. It is sometimes touted, even by the best coaches (looking at you Hansen), that anybody can have a good rolling maul and it is impossible to defend against. You buy some monstrous players get them low and you’ll shunt the opposition ten yards backward with ease. The reality is somewhat different.
At the bare minimum you need an imperious lineout which even for the best hookers and locks in the business is no guarantee, just ask Rory Best. Then you need those eight monstrous players to get low and drive another set of monstrous players ten yards back to score with apparent ease. All without losing their feet or stalling too many times. Rob Baxter’s Exeter is extremely good at those things and it serves as a lethal weapon. It is part of the reason that Thomas Waldrom was the top try scorer in the Premiership during the two previous seasons.
It is here at the end of discussing forwards that I want to mention a special player. One that doesn’t get the highlight reels of Don Armand and may not have the awe-inspiring physical presence of Dave Ewers or the ball carrying flair of Luke Cowan Dickie. He is the heart of the forward pack and according to his Wikipedia page (that doesn’t even prompt without specifying rugby), he has never played for another club apart from the Exeter Chiefs. A true club man born in Devon, who hasn’t taken a step backwards since his debut in 2008 but has flown under the radar for far too long. An original brought up from the Championship and moulded by Baxter and co to start in the 2017 Premiership final and win.
Ben Moon take a bow.
In the backs, the signings of James Short and Olly Woodburn are now clearly the work of a genius. Both players provide the X factor out wide to an otherwise very reliable side that knows how to run through phases. James Short brought in across codes from Rugby League and Olly Woodburn brought in from the sidelines of Bath they were seen as risky acquisitions. But, as always with Rob Baxter he proves that he’s got the measure of the men he brings in and both have been far beyond everybody’s expectations.
The progression this team has made is phenomenal but it has been a measured approach. In the 2015/16 campaign, Exeter finished second in both the table and the overall results. Heading into the Final against Saracens Baxter accepted the underdog status happily but not in a secretive ‘we can win’ style most coaches would do. It was once again a genuine belief that whilst Exeter could win this year it was unlikely and it didn’t come across as defeatist but realistic. Only Rob Baxter can pull this off without causing people to lose their mental edge. Sadly for fans in the stadium, myself included, Exeter were beaten in 2016. They only turned up for the second half of the game and by then it was too late and Saracens were in complete control. This, however, was a stepping stone once again to becoming winners and Baxter repeatedly reminded his players and fans that now they had experienced the occasion and the standard required they could come back next year and finish the job. This is exactly what they did.
In 2017 we saw a miracle happen at Sandy Park in a semi-final draw that Exeter had fought hard to avoid they had to play Saracens. With the game ebbing and flowing throughout Saracens pulled ahead near the end and appeared to crush Exeter’s chances in a swift efficient manner that only Saracens can do. Up steps Henry Slade. With less than a minute on the clock and a try required the young superstar was given the chance to turn the game on its head. Exeter had won a penalty and Steenson hands the ball to Henry Slade his left boot more suited to swinging the ball into touch from the angle. He now has a shot out of hand from 60 metres in which he had to find the corner to give Exeter a remote chance of winning and reaching the final. With the breeze behind him and throwing caution to the wind you better believe that he found the corner. 60 metres downfield the touch judge raises his arm 5 metres out and the Exeter fans go mad. All the forwards could ever ask for had just been handed to them on a plate, the opportunity to create a driving maul 5 metres out. If you’ve watched a single Exeter game in the past five years you’ll know that this is all they needed. The forwards claim the ball at the lineout set up and roll right over. Euphoria ensues and the belief rolled on to the final.
Over these years I’ve seen a radical physical change in certain players from their promotion into the Premiership to their current day stature. The backs, in particular, are becoming a different breed of player. Gone in part are the lightweight wings and fly halves. Baxter has taken a group of ball playing skill merchants and made them massive. Whatever diet and exercise routine they have them on in the South West appears to be working a treat. Gareth Steenson over the last few years has transformed himself into a muscle-bound defensive leader who leads the line much like Brad Barritt. Jack Nowell was by no means small but the power he generates from a standing start takes teams by surprise every single time. Ollie Devoto, one of Baxter’s smart signings gutting a future player away from a rival and adding strings to his bow. Devoto is another prime example of seeing the potential in a young player and giving him the tools required to become a champion. He was always tall but now he’s powerful and this combination of his footballing ability means he’s a true threat nowadays.
With Watson, JJ, Tapuai, Fruean, Ford, and Homer playing for Bath Devoto was destined to sit on the bench for the foreseeable future. Baxter gave him an opportunity to seize his moment early and he has taken it by bulking up and growing into his potential. With the guiding hand of Whitten next to him, he has shown himself to be a fantastic addition to a fantastic squad. So much so he keeps the energetic livewire that is Campagnaro warming the bench for the first 60minutes of most games.
It does not always play out this way however.
This name comes up constantly as the star man for Exeter. A future England star with the potential to light the world up on a rugby pitch. It is a fair assessment.
When he’s on form there are very few players better to watch than Henry Slade. Whether it’s his balance on the ball or his kicking out of hand it’s always exciting. There was a moment at the beginning of the season where it looked like Steenson’s crown was going to be passed down to the younger more exciting apprentice. His use at 10 or 13 through the years has caused questions about his true position and this was prophesied by many, including myself, to be the year he moved permanently to fly-half.
This sadly was halted as Exeter got off to a bumpy start to the season losing their first two games in which Slade started at 10. This isn’t to say that the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of Slade. In different interviews, Exeter players have pointed to a point early in the season where they all went into the sheds and had a big talk about what they wanted from this season and where they needed to improve. This talk is highlighted by players as when they rallied back towards taking the league by storm. It also appears to collide with the moment that Steenson resumes his regular leading role at 10 and the rest is history.
Baxter has given Slade a long time to become the player he wants before giving him this test. A premiership starter away at Wasps and at home vs Saracens Slade was asked to rise to the forefront of Exeter Chiefs and lead. As baptisms of fire go this one had a lot of preparation and investment behind it along with the knowledge that if all went tits up Steenson was waiting in the wings. A man with a backup plan and a steady hand on the tiller Baxter gives chances but he rarely squanders opportunities.
How Exeter use Slade and Campagnaro in the future will be wholly dependent on who starts to take their opportunities better. Right now the more consistent performer is Campagnaro but then the moments of magic like Slade’s 60m touch finder in the Semi-Final come flooding back. I’m leaving this bit open because I am none the wiser on whether Slade will become the one true king.
The future of Exeter looks ridiculously bright. There is a mixture of young and old faces within this current squad each bringing something special to the table. As old heads leave others will replace them. Parling has decided to sign for the Melbourne Rebels in 2018. His job is done for Exeter and he can leave a Premiership Champion to enjoy the sunny shores of a new adventure abroad. Dave Lewis is leaving to join Harlequins and Haydn Thomas retires leaving a hole that needs filling at scrumhalf. In response to these now big name departures, Baxter has once again been smart.
They have signed a young winger in Tom O’Flaherty from the Ospreys and a player who appeared stuck in a rut at Gloucester in Matt Kvesic. There is also the big name signing of Nic White from Montpellier who should be a real asset with the young selection of scrum halves currently playing week in week out and the aforementioned hole in this position (Townsend and Maunder are still quality). On top of these savvy signings there is a promotion from the academy for Sam Simmonds and in Rob Baxter tradition he has signed two more players from the Championship. The first is Toby Salmon a lock from Rotherham the other is the Jersey captain James Freeman a very useful backrow forward. These transfers once again show ambition and a trust in the systems they have proven to work.
The aim is to become the best in Europe and with Baxter always building for the future, I wouldn’t bet against them.
Disclaimer – There are swathes of stories and side stories that I have missed out on and I am very aware of most of them. This page will probably get longer and I might have to release it in a paperback format soon if I find my structure.