A new book published this week tells the story of Exeter's incredible climb to the peak of European rugby. Rugby World takes a look at Exe Men and goes giddy with delight
Summiting with the Exe Men
How fortuitous – or prescient – that one of the country’s best rugby writers, Rob Kitson, chose to live in Devon. It gave the Guardian correspondent easy access to the men behind one of all sport’s greatest stories – the barely believable rise of Exeter Chiefs.
With impeccable timing, Kitson and publishers Polaris planned the release of the wonderful new book Exe Men just weeks after the club happened to reach the top of their Everest. English champions for the second time, European champions for the first time – there is nowhere else to climb now unless someone creates a world club championship.
What a journey it has been. When the Courage National Leagues began in 1987-88, Exeter scraped into the lowest division and won just three fixtures to finish below the likes of Maidstone, Fylde and Vale of Lune. Rob Baxter, then a part-time player, sometimes mowed the pitch and would spend just as long walking to the local garage for refills of petrol to fuel the small ride-on mower.
Ten years later, the Chiefs were in Allied Dunbar Two but only avoided relegation because of a league restructure. Tony Rowe, who had come on board as a sponsor, was not one to prevaricate. He set about commercialising the club, starting by painting out the names of companies that hadn’t paid for their advertising hoarding.
Another decade on and Chiefs were finishing runners-up in the second-tier Championship for the second time, a position they repeated a year later. Yet still these were transitional days, with then director of rugby Pete Drewett tasked with such matters as locking the gates at Chiefs’ new Sandy Park home.
Not until 2010 did Exeter reach the top flight but that brought new headaches. Ahead of the unforgettable play-off win at Bristol, Premiership Rugby wouldn’t tell them how much money they would receive for earning promotion, nor give them any wriggle room for meeting ground criteria. Miraculously, Exeter designed and built a new stand in eight weeks so that they could tick all the boxes.
Once in the Premiership, the general consensus was that Chiefs would go straight down. Austin Healey predicted that they wouldn’t win a game.
Yet they set about things with such ambition that you couldn’t help fall under their spell. It wasn’t just the way they pushed the limits of their attacking rugby – I recall being dazzled by a 2013 Heineken Cup game when they ran Cardiff Blues ragged – but also their bullish intent.
After Chiefs beat Gloucester in their inaugural Premiership match, a journalist asked Baxter if he would be resting his first team for their next outing at Leicester. The assumption being that Exeter would lose anyway and they would have their eye on the following week’s game with likely fellow relegation candidates Newcastle.
“No,” said Baxter. “I want our team to be really good Premiership players. The only way you do that is to go to places like Leicester and experience it.”
Exeter gave Leicester a real fright, leading at the hour mark. They weren’t rolling over for anyone, least of all Saracens, against whom they recorded their first away win in the Premiership. They have never deviated from that path.
The back stories of the Baxters, Rowe, the players and the coaches, are engrossing. Rowe’s natural father was a lion tamer turned circus ringmaster and his circuitous route to club ownership includes driving powerboats and collecting fire engines.
The Baxter family roots lie in Lancashire and but for the fickleness of the British weather they might never have headed south. When Ted, the grandfather, was planning to relocate, he initially looked at a farm in the Lake District but was put off by the sheets of rain falling on the day of his visit.
The family ended up in Devon instead and son John and grandsons Rob and Richie have contributed monumentally to Exeter’s fortunes. Kitson describes John the player as “not renowned for communicating in flowery rhyming couplets”, an exquisite way to say he favoured a belligerent approach.
Rob, it was intriguing to discover, is the only DoR to undertake the coding of matches himself, using time spent on long bus journeys to do the work usually carried out by an analyst. His work ethic is such that his dad has become accustomed to seeing more of him on the telly than face to face, even though they live next door!
Rob’s recruitment skills, his nose for knowing who will enhance the playing group or management team, is arguably his strongest card. Many of the players plucked from relative obscurity have had a chip on their shoulder, a point to prove.
Gareth Steenson, a legend of the club and now coaching, says: “My whole career has been built on being told I wasn’t good enough. If my wife was to describe me, ‘stubborn’ would be one of the words she’d use. You’ve got to overcome things.
“If you’re handed stuff you don’t appreciate it. We were all a bunch of misfits. If you looked at our squad, everyone, somewhere along the line, had been let go by somebody. You could run through our entire XV and every single one had been told ‘no’ at some stage. I think it was the biggest part of our persona for the first five to six years in the Premiership, the fact everyone kept saying we had no chance.”
When the former Exeter wing Mark Foster was moving house, half a dozen team-mates turned up to help without being asked. “Guys would do things not because there was anything in it for them but because it needed to be done,” he says. “It was exactly the same on the pitch. If a ruck needed clearing, someone would clear it.”
Baxter took Foster aside one day to offer a word of advice: when you celebrate a try, the first people you should celebrate with should be your team-mates, not the crowd, because it’s they who got you the try.
Dean Mumm, the club’s first top-drawer seasoned international, discusses his amazement at how Baxter organised the post-match team drinking after a game in Dublin, instead of players creeping out in small groups as he was used to in Australia.
And when Mumm and wife Sarah lost their first son, Henry, at just nine days old, the entire Exeter squad, regardless of age or life experience, attended the funeral to pay their respects.
There is plenty on the technical and tactical smartness that took Chiefs to the top – Chris Bentley relates how Orrell spent ages trying to decipher a lineout call ‘You decide’ that simply meant a driving maul! – and a switch to first-person style for a couple of Exeter’s red-letter days.
The club that was pretty much bankrupt in the last years of the amateur era has become a model of good practice, with turnover of £21.7 million in 2018-19 and plans to increase stadium capacity to more than 18,000 and build the “biggest commercial hotel this side of Bristol”.
Playing wise, Exeter score heavily off lineout drives and the pick and go, but have the capacity to rip teams apart in more flamboyant fashion. Sam Simmonds’s try at Quins last week off first phase, or Tom O’Flaherty’s yesterday against Bath, were things of beauty.
And those who criticise their pick-and-go prolificacy, or even the efficiency of their caterpillar rucks, are perhaps missing the point. Why would you not do things that make you successful? Forwards coach Rob Hunter refers to a team that regularly moaned about Exeter’s use of the maul. “They would only put three or four defenders in against (our) eight,” he says, “and we’d score three or four tries every time we played them. If they’d have put eight guys in, we’d have moved the ball.”
Their fame has gone global. When Baxter popped into a gym on holiday in Cancún, he was stopped by a wide-eyed Mexican. “You… Ro-ob Baxter?” began the conversation with what turned out to be a scrum-half for Cancún Hammerheads.
It is fame hard earned and richly deserved. Exeter have long been a huge source of pride in the South-West of England, an area not overladen with sporting success. They are also a symbol of hope to clubs everywhere that you can cock a snook to the established order, you can fulfil the most fanciful of dreams.
Exe Men: The Extraordinary Rise of Exeter Chiefs is published by Polaris, RRP £17.99. Enter our competition for your chance to win a copy of the book.
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