Exeter Chiefs will be playing in their fourth straight Premiership Final this weekend against the European Champions Saracen, so no one in their right mind could come out and knock them for that?
Well, people have and I must admit, I agree with them but not for the same reasons that have been highlighted.
The timing of this article is maybe not ideal and perhaps I have jumped the gun before Saturday’s showpiece of English domestic Rugby but I can assure you that I am not jumping on the Stuart Barnes band wagon either.
My criticism stems from a frustration at the mentality and reasoning behind the way that they play when you take into consideration the talent that they possess.
This isn’t sour grapes or jealousy from myself because the foundations of the club, where they have come from in the past decade and the people that seem to be involved with at Sandy Park is something that I admire with the utmost respect.
A mid-table championship club with a dream to get into the Premiership and stay there has now become a team that expect to win the Premiership every season. Fantastic. They should make a film about it in fact.
I’ve heard from a very close source to the club that Rob Baxter and Tony Rowe met in a pub one night and planned this all out over a few pints. What more can one say to that but:
My worry is that the original film won’t have a sequel. An epic that carries on the story from becoming a big club to a giant one.
One that strikes fear into nations abroad and conquers Europe. A Gladiatorial tale if you will.
Where is that ambition now? The way that they play has been gobbled up in Europe. The big and even not so big names have stopped Exeter qualifying from their group all but once. Even then, it was one of those strange groups where the qualifiers went through despite multiple losses. One point was the difference between all four teams. That was the 2015-16 season and was the last time that they qualified.
Let’s take the coaching staff as an example of my point. Between the five main coaches there isn’t a single international cap between them. Ali Hepher toured with England in 2000 but that’s the closest that any one of them has come.
I’m not questioning their ability to coach but where is the elite edge in that group? Where is the man that has won multiple Heineken Cups, toured the world with his nation or been involved with the British and Irish Lions?
In the modern era it is needed either on the field or off. Preferably in both areas and preferably in positions that influence the team the most.
Jack Nowell and Henry Slade are heading in that direction on the pitch but Nowell isn’t in an influential position because of the way that the Chiefs play yet Slade may become that man over time.
Nowell and Alex Cuthbert are the only Lions in the squad and Cuthbert certainly isn’t the player he was in 2013 when he toured Australia. Stuart Hogg joins next season but unless you allow players like that to rip up the rule book now and again then you lose the dreaded buzz word ‘X-Factor’ that they bring to the table.
Saracens also play a structured way but they use it as a foundation to punish people from any where on the field. Look through the squad list and it’s a who’s who of international European rugby.
Vunipola’s, Williams, Itoje, Kruis, Farrell, Maitland to name but a handful.
The argument could be that without those resources at their disposal, Exeter have achieved more than Sarries but do you want to continue dominating a league where international players don’t play a large percentage of the games or do you want to be crowned Champions of Europe and really place yourself at the higher echelons of rugby royalty?
The West Country outfit are the only club to turn profit in the Premiership and again that is testament to how well the club is run but they now find themselves at a tipping point and a very sharp turn in their long road to the top.
The Chiefs family look after each other and the loyalty shown to people is admirable but it is time for a change.
Personally, I’d love to see Exeter in a European Final challenging the greatest names, but I am not convinced it is what the club truly aspire to. Winning domestically is good enough for them.
That’s a real shame because they are destined for greater things than that.
Their backline is sensational but they are not allowed to play outside of the book. Allowing Santiago Cordero to leave absolutely baffles me for a start. I can’t get my head around it. If it is to make room for Hogg then I would question that decision as there is room for both in that squad.
Intelligent players like Slade, Olly Devoto, Nowell and Cordero can turn games on their head and light up the pitch match after match in the way that Toulouse, Leinster and Saracens did all season but to do that, the kicking to touch has to be reduced, as well as the box kicks and the pick & drives after rolling mauls. As much as attacking units are coached on them effectively, so are defensive ones to stop them.
Kicking to Yohann Huget, Rob Kearney, Liam Williams or Jacob Stockdale isn’t such a bright prospect as it is when hosting Newcastle or Worcester on a grey Saturday afternoon above the M5.
It’s time for some calculated risks both in the board room and the changing rooms.
Add to the coaching staff. Add some new blood from outside of the Chiefs bubble. Baxter, Julian Salvi, Ricky Pellow and Haydn Thomas are all ex-players whilst Ali Hepher has been by Baxter’s side for 10 years and Rob Hunter had only coached at academy and age group level before joining six years ago. Hardly worldly experience.
Grab some international experience and allow them to mould parts of the game that use players instincts.
Take a real shot at Europe and put some more eggs in that basket. Play a different style, study the French and Irish Clubs and maybe even sacrifice a playoff place for a year whilst that change organically manifests itself in the club. It would be worth it in the long run.
To carry on being risk averse will only see the club stagnate and the elite pull away even further from them.
The loyalty shown is admirable, as I have mentioned and the willingness to develop from within is as well. The unique way that the club is owned and run is impressive but at the same time, it’s going to be difficult to impose a new mindset on it due to the number of stakeholders involved.
The family feel of the club has taken them so far but like all families, they eventually grow up and move on to bigger and better things.
Come on Exeter, want more for yourselves because I genuinely believe it is there for the taking.