How the Exeter Chiefs achieved double trophy glory by having fun along the way

PUBLISHED: 10:28 04 November 2020 | UPDATED: 10:32 04 November 2020

The �impossible� dream comes true. Exeter Chiefs are crowned champions of Europe. Photo: Tom Jenkins

The �impossible� dream comes true. Exeter Chiefs are crowned champions of Europe. Photo: Tom Jenkins

2020 Getty Images

New book charts the inside story of the rise of rugby union’s premier club team

Grace allied to power as Henry Slade glides in to score a game-changing try in the 2020 Champions Cup final at Ashton Gate. Photo: Tom JenkinsGrace allied to power as Henry Slade glides in to score a game-changing try in the 2020 Champions Cup final at Ashton Gate. Photo: Tom Jenkins

We all love a fairy tale and in Devon this year we have been treated to an oval-shaped one. Barely a decade ago Exeter Chiefs were still a Championship side who had never featured in the top division of English league rugby. Now they are the new kings of Europe, having achieved a European and domestic ‘double’ in the space of eight days this autumn.

So how exactly did it happen? As outrageous luck would have it, I have spent the last couple of years chronicling every aspect of the Chiefs’ extraordinary story. Has there ever been a more consistently feelgood South West yarn? There is even a strong argument it trumps anything else in modern British team sport.

In part it has been the product of some timeless qualities: hard work, smart recruitment and even smarter coaching. There is, though, another key ingredient. Rob Baxter, the club’s director of rugby, recognised years ago that happy rugby players tended to be successful ones. Never mind that Exeter’s dressing-room was an eclectic mix of rejects, fishermen’s sons, farm boys, exiled Zimbabweans and cider drinkers. What mattered was their absolute commitment to the cause AND to enjoying themselves along the way.

Olly Woodman soars over the line to score a remarkable try against Bath at Sandy Park in March 2020. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty ImagesOlly Woodman soars over the line to score a remarkable try against Bath at Sandy Park in March 2020. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

READ MORE: Exeter Chiefs rugby stars show their talents off the pitch

Of the many examples in the book - and several away bus trips down the years remain legendary - perhaps the one that best reflects Baxter’s man management skills is when he headed up to a service station in the Midlands to sign Thomas Waldrom, the Leicester and England No 8.

Waldrom was almost 31 and had a famously sweet tooth. As they queued in the café the player could not help noticing the muffins beside the counter. “Would you like one?” asked Baxter. Waldrom absolutely did and decided to go for the ‘healthier’ poppy seed option. “Look, I don’t care, you can have anything you want,” persisted Baxter. “Sod it,” thought Waldrom and ordered a chocolate one. Baxter appreciated his honesty and, in return, ‘Thomas the Tank’ scored 51 tries in 101 club appearances.

Robert Kitson's new book charts the rise of the Exeter Chiefs to European and domestic glory. Photo: PolarisRobert Kitson's new book charts the rise of the Exeter Chiefs to European and domestic glory. Photo: Polaris

A number of other people have also played influential roles, including the club’s loyal president, Bob Staddon. He helped navigate Exeter through tough times in the 1980s when they were losing to Sidmouth, Barnstaple, Tiverton and Devon & Cornwall Police.

These days, from the entire Baxter family to Jack Nowell and Henry Slade, there are local heroes pretty well everywhere. As the club awaits its 150th anniversary year, what better moment for the entire West Country to raise a glass and toast the mighty Chiefs?

Exe Men: The Extraordinary Rise of Exeter Chiefs by Robert Kitson, rugby union correspondent for The Guardian, is published by Polaris.

Power play: the strength of the forwards is the heartbeat of the Exeter game plan – demonstrated perfectly by Harry Williams, who scored crucial tries in both the semi-final and final of the 2020 Champions Cup campaign. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty ImagesPower play: the strength of the forwards is the heartbeat of the Exeter game plan – demonstrated perfectly by Harry Williams, who scored crucial tries in both the semi-final and final of the 2020 Champions Cup campaign. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

Did you know that Exeter Chiefs are the only club in history to have won trophies in all four tiers of English league rugby?

They won the Division 4 title in 1995/96, topped Division 3 in 1996/97, clinched promotion from the Championship in 2009/10 and have since won the Premiership title twice - beating Wasps in both the 2016/17 and 2019-20 finals.

This year they also lifted the Heineken Champions’ Cup, narrowly winning 31-27 against France’s Racing 92 in a tense finale in Bristol. Sam Simmonds, the Chiefs’ No 8, was subsequently named European Player of the Year.

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