Exeter Chiefs are one of the true great rugby stories of the English Premiership.
For many years they had been the bridesmaid of the Rugby Championship as they missed out on promotion to Bristol, Northampton and Leeds Carnegie but since the duck was broken in 2009 and they finally gained promotion to the Premiership they haven’t ever looked back.
The club is unique in that it is run by 700 members who put their confidence in four trustees to make the correct decisions on their behalf.
Then there is Tony Rowe, the Chairman of the Board and also the CEO. He is a local businessman whose company has adorned the front of the Chiefs’ shirts for nearly two decades now. He is the driving force and the face of the club. A savvy businessman who only has the supporter’s best interests at heart.
It is he that made the Chiefs move to their current stadium, Sandy Park, in 2006 and it has subsequently elevated the Devonians to a new level.
The need for corporate hospitality and a facility to house European Rugby was a must and Rowe delivered it to the fans.
If Rowe is the driving force off the field then there is only man that can be credited with what has been achieved on it and that is Rob Baxter.
If you cut Baxter in half then he would probably look like a Blackpool stick of rock with the word Exeter running through him.
14 years a player, 10 of which as the Captain, and Head Coach or Director of Rugby since 2009 shows you just how important this man is to the club but also how important the club is to him.
In his first season as Head Coach he got the Chiefs promoted to the Premiership and managed to finish 8th in their first season even though they were clear favourites to drop straight back down again. The next year they were 5th and subsequently qualified for the holy land of the Heineken Cup.
The fairy tale continued as they won the Anglo-Welsh Cup and made the Premiership final only to be beaten by Saracens but in 2017 that fairy tale had its final chapter written. They beat Wasps in extra time via the boot of Gareth Steenson, a man that had stood next to and fought for Baxter in those slightly darker Championship days.
All of what has happened in South West Devon is phenomenal but my fear is that the book has now been completed and there may not be any more chapters.
In the Premiership the Chiefs look untouchable. There is a clinical edge to their game and numerous game plans that can be reverted to should the plan A not be succeeding.
A perfect example of this was only a few weeks ago when they were injury hit and travelled to their big rivals Bath on a Friday night.
Their power game had been affected by the injuries meaning starving the opposition of the ball wasn’t going to work like it had so well for many years so they had to be patient and take every chance that they got. They did just that and with hardly any ball to play with they managed to score five tries and 39 points. Ruthless work on a cold Friday evening by the river.
In Europe they just don’t seem to be able to click like this. They’ve only got out of the group stage once and that was in very strange circumstances after a three-way tie on 16 points but even then, they were beaten in the next round by Wasps.
This season has been no different as their European form belies their standing in the English game.
A draw at home to Munster when in a winning position is acceptable when playing a European giant but the match at the weekend was a different story. It was a very un-Exeter like performance to say the least.
They raced into a lead and after Castres had a man sent off in the first half it looked for all money that the Chiefs were going to have their day.
It didn’t pan out that way as ill discipline crept into their game with even the unflappable Henry Slade picking up a yellow card as they fell short by four points. They actually lost the second half as well even though they had a man advantage up until Slade’s misdemeanour near the end.
The Chief’s biggest issue is that they show their opposition on the continent too much respect. In the English Premiership they would have gone for the jugular in both games as they relish putting a virtual two fingers up to the naysayers that criticise the way they play yet in Europe they don’t seem to believe that they belong at the top table.
That’s the most frustrating part because they really do belong there and they need to start believing it.
Their squad isn’t littered with international stars at all. There are England Squad members, Santiago Cordero from Argentina and Michele Campagnaro from Italy when he is fit but other than that the global international pedigree isn’t prominent.
That’s not a criticism at all but more a backhanded compliment. This is a team in every sense of the word. They know the game plan, they stick to it and its harvested fantastic results domestically.
What that lack of international depth does bring to the fore however is a shortage of big match experience. The travelling, game management in different climates, different types of atmospheres and differing styles of play against teams is something that is bread and butter to teams littered with star names.
The Heineken Champions Cup needs to be played at test level as the competition progresses. Pundits often talk about ‘test match animals’ at some of these powerhouse French and Irish teams as well as at Saracens and they have a point. These are the players that have been in the trenches in the 79th minute of a test match and come out victorious. Money can’t buy that experience.
Exeter’s ethos to rugby and how they have arrived where they are right now is more than admirable but this is the same ethos that is stopping them going from a big club to a huge club.
They are caught between a rock and hard place though because as a business they are by far and away the best run club in the Premiership. The only team to turnover a profit last season in fact.
They need a way to change that model and invest in the squad without selling their souls to the commercial devil.
It’s an extremely tricky balance that needs to be found but players like Slade, Jack Nowell, Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Don Armand have all tasted the sweet nectar of victory domestically and their ambition will be to do the same in Europe.
If they start looking around the changing room and don’t see any big-name additions then they may start looking elsewhere to feed their addictions. Even the most loyal of servants realise how short a career is and how little time you have to build a decent sized trophy cabinet in your own home.
Rowe and Baxter may have some head and heart decisions coming up soon as to how to take the club to the next level but judging by their track record there are not two better people to do it anywhere in the rugby world.
Photo Credit: Charlie via freeforcommercialuse.org