Exeter Chiefs have continually impressed in the top flight, so will England make the most of their talented players and coaches?
While Leicester’s win in football’s Premier League has dominated the news agenda, there has been something going on in Devon for years now, which will serve the England rugby team well for ages. Or at least it should do.
If you are not already a fully paid-up member of the Chiefs Tribe then it is a shade of odds-on that your second favourite team in the Aviva Premiership hails from Exeter. Like Leicester City, who have just battered down the barricades of football’s elite and become the second result everyone looks for, Exeter have smashed the established order. We don’t know if Claudio Ranieri’s men are here to stay but the Chiefs certainly are.
Ranieri will never get the England job but if Rob Baxter, who has performed miracles at Exeter, does not get a crack at it one day there is something seriously wrong.
When they first arrived in the upper echelon of English rugby in 2010, Exeter were expected to go straight back down with a patronising wave from the big boys after they had been well and truly put in their place. But, six years later, they are still about and you will never get 5,000-1 on them winning the Premiership. You can’t even get 5-1 on them winning this time around.
In between times they’ve got better every year. They got into Europe’s top competition in 2012, won an LV= Cup in 2014, made the knockout stages of the Champions Cup this year and are now in the Premiership play-offs for the first time. Tony Rowe, the Exeter chairman, thinks his side will win the title sooner or later. It may not be this year but it is not a million years away.
Off the field they are turning a profit, staged World Cup matches at Sandy Park and have one of the slickest, and most open, media operations going where almost nothing seems to be too much trouble. They turn up on time for press sessions. It will never catch on.
And they like a beer at the right time, too, which in this sanitised age is no bad thing. In fact, Baxter has been known to take his squad away to places like Benidorm to blow the froth off a couple as he reckons that is one of the best ways to get new recruits introduced to the rest of the group. And you wouldn’t mind a seat on the team bus on the way home after a decent away win or even a defeat.
Baxter says: “We are a bit beyond the lads getting on the smash every Saturday, but we know when to enjoy ourselves and that’s really important.”
That is all very nice, and one up for the old school, but none of this really helps you play rugby though, and Exeter can really play rugby. Wasps have been on the up-and-up this season and knocked the Chiefs out of the Champions Cup in the game of the tournament so far at the quarter-final stage.
Wasps won that heart-stopper 25-24 thanks to Jimmy Gopperth’s late conversion and you would have given them more than half a chance in the recent sold-out Premiership game in Devon.
But Exeter routed them 24-3 at a ground where they have only been beaten once since January 2015, and that was by Saracens. Wasps hardly got a sniff all day as the Chiefs put them through the mincer – and they will be doing it to other teams for a long time to come.
From Rowe downwards through Baxter and his assistant coaches to the support staff and the people who work in the club office, Exeter are ten out of ten material – they have just won the A League as well. No wonder players want to join them.
Thomas Waldrom has been rejuvenated since his move from Leicester – he admitted Baxter buying him a chocolate muffin in a motorway service station when they were discussing his shift to the West Country tempted him. Geoff Parling and Julian Salvi have both been around the block and saw something they liked down Sandy Park way. And now the rest of the rugby world like what they see.
But Exeter are not just a bunch of old lags. Henry Slade, Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie have all come through the system and been capped by England, and it would not be a shock if Dave Ewers got the nod from Eddie Jones to tour Australia in the summer too.
It is just a shame that Baxter will not be down there as well in some capacity. He was a roaring success when he did a shift as forwards coach on England’s tour to Argentina in 2013 but he has also decided the Saxons gig in South Africa this summer is not for him.
Jones says it is part of his remit to leave the England job in the hands of English coaches when he passes over the reins in 2019. He’s got a few into the system but Baxter would be this reporter’s pick to head up the whole thing when the Australian finally fulfils his promise to head off to Barbados and watch cricket. And you won’t get 5,000-1 on that.