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