When Exeter Chiefs arrived in the Premiership last year few thought it more than a flash in the pan; a plucky amateur stepping up for a shot at the big time doomed to gallant failure, writes Dan Grose. Yet far from gallant failure, the Chiefs eighth place finish has had critics and coaches analyzing and lauding the club ever since. With a second, potentially tricky, season ahead of them, the same analysts will be keen to discover how they will push on, develop and ultimately maintain after such an impressive debut.
What is certain, however, is that last campaign was by no means a fluke, as some have cruelly attributed it. Exeter set their stall out early on as a functional, hard to beat side with determination and depth, earmarking survival as the one and only target. The bettering of this target was a testament to the sheer hard work of everyone involved with the club, a “never say die” motto if you will, something to be underestimated at your peril as many teams found out.
Having made many visits to Sandy Park, and the County Ground before that, whilst growing up in the area, their ascension has not come as a surprise at all. The determination surrounding the Exeter Chiefs is only surpassed by the burning passion for rugby, something that the players and coaches must all have to be part of such a driven club.
In Head Coach Rob Baxter they have the perfect manifestation of both qualities, as well as a large dose of tactical shrewdness. Lauded for his team’s tactical demolition of Bristol in the Championship Final second leg, Baxter took the same analytical approach into the Premiership and the results speak for themselves. His acquisition of players, training philosophy and attitude to games is a huge factor in keeping the team in motion, and this will only strengthen over the coming months.
The Chiefs opening day victory over Leicester is a prime example. Following an impressive result Baxter briefly pointed out the areas of improvement before swiftly acknowledging the depleted nature of their opponents as a factor in the win. A hard taskmaster you may think, but necessary in the constant search for perfection. And with pre season victories over Connacht and Scarlets, it’s definitely working.
If you had said Exeter should be aiming for a top six finish this season at the same point last year, you would most likely have been extensively laughed at. Yet, in all realms of possibility, this is now a reality. The dreaded Second Season Syndrome must be avoided first, but a year of consolidation and quiet advancement is on the cards should they succeed.
Indeed few would begrudge the Devon club further success as they fast become everyone’s second favourite team, unless you’re a Sale fan of course. They have the facilities, players and coach to build the foundations of Premiership establishment, and boy do they deserve it.