Wednesday 26 May, 2010; Memorial Ground, Bristol. Exeter Chiefs’ Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, looks on as his side dismantles their South West rivals by 29 points to 10 to secure promotion to the Premiership. In his first season at the helm, Baxter’s men had reached the top tier of English rugby for the first time in the club’s history – an incredible feat for a side that had incrementally improved following promotion from the third tier in 1997. 

Except that promotion-winning season was anything but Baxter’s first at the club. 16-years as a player, with ten as captain, preceded Baxter’s coaching career with the Chiefs. As forwards coach, Baxter watched as Exeter moved from the dilapidated County Ground – replete with speedway and greyhound racing tracks – to Sandy Park in 2006 and the very explicit commercial benefits that came with it. The development of both club and Director of Rugby is deeply intertwined. This is Baxter’s relationship to the club. This is his, and Exeter Chiefs’, history. 

The Chiefs are in the midst of a period of transition

It’s a history that, on the surface, bears little importance to the everyday success of the club – and the challenges the Chiefs face next season – but it’s a salient point to make following a final that left Baxter clearly devastated at Exeter’s failure to defend their Premiership trophy.

The Chiefs are in the midst of a period of transition. Having stuck by the men who got the club promoted back in 2010, Baxter has seen the lineage dwindle. Tom Hayes, Tom Johnson et al. have all retired in recent years – only Phil Dollman and fly-half hero Gareth Steenson remain from that promotion-winning side.

The Big Chief hails another sell-out Sandy Park crowd

While their replacements have gone on to achieve unprecedented success for Exeter, there was a distinct lack of leadership at Twickenham, as young starlets like Joe Simmonds struggled to cope with Saracens’ savvy. The manner in which he, and the likes of Jonny Hill and local lads Sam Skinner and Joe’s brother, Sam, respond could be the making of the side.

One of the ways sport enchants its fans is its simplicity – success is definite. You can win, lose, or draw; there is an explicit hierarchy to aspire to climb. When you reach the top of the tree, the challenges are very different to the problems those who lie stricken among its roots must endure. 

The Chiefs have climbed that tree. Slowly, methodically, ruthlessly – they have earnt the right to be spoken about as the equals of, and superiors to, some of the great names in European rugby. Now in the canopy, the threat to Exeter – as much as anything else – will come from below and the resurgence of their English Premiership rivals in the West Country. 

Perhaps the biggest threat comes in the form of Bristol

Bath limped into sixth place in the league by the skin of their teeth before losing to the Chiefs in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final  – a disappointing display considering the attacking talent in their ranks. Gloucester finished one place behind Bath and suffered similar heartbreak in the European Challenge Cup. They have also undergone a ‘brand redesign’ to go with their hopes that incoming signing Danny Cipriani will set the Kingsholm crowd alight once more as they return to the top tier in Europe. Both clubs will expect a better showing next term. 

But perhaps the biggest threat to the Chiefs comes in the form of Bristol, the Chiefs’ adversaries eight years ago – now promoted back to the top tier of English rugby having languished in the shadows of the sport for so long. Like Gloucester, Bristol have rebranded to become the ‘Bears’ – a move that may see symbols of North America do battle in the South West of England for years to come. 

Exeter’s captain Don Armand collecting his runners-up medal at Twickenham

Aside from the nature of Bristol as a sleeping giant of the game, one of their main assets is Pat Lam – Head Coach of the side and a man to rival Baxter’s coaching accumen. Having taken a province even more unfashionable than Exeter – Connacht, who play in the hail and gales of Galway –  to a Pro12 title in 2016, Lam was also at the helm for the Barbarians as they dismantled Eddie Jones’ England last month with a dazzling display of daring rugby. The rejuvenation of Bristol was very much made with Lam in mind, and they have stumped up the cash to ensure the project works.

Ed Holmes and Shaun Malton will line-up for Bristol next season, while Will Chudley heads to Bath after six years at Sandy Park. In the short term, Gloucester, Bath, and Bristol are unlikely to rock Exeter on the field. But in the future, for a club that has built an incredible fanbase in Devon and, somewhat begrudgingly, Cornwall, Bristol’s rejuvenation may be a worry for Exeter. The hegemony the Chiefs have in the region is arguably more important when it comes to their academy and scouting systems. To have yet another Premiership rival looking westward to Devon could hamper the Chiefs’ player pool – Jonny Hill is a prime example of Exeter’s ability to attract and improve young players from the region.

Because this is the model for the Chiefs – hard work and relentless improvement, as well as two areas of focus for recruitment: home-grown talent and misfits of the game. It’s not far off the much-heralded ‘Moneyball’ methodology. It does mean, however, that the Chiefs are unlikely to go out and spend in the manner Bristol and Pat Lam have done – Alex Cuthbert is the only new-recruit announced thus far.

In Cuthbert, they have something of a rough diamond – he has footballing deficiencies, but at full-tilt, the Welshman is a wonderful runner and potent try-scorer. Out of the goldfish bowl that is Wales, and into the hard-working and humble environment Baxter engenders, Exeter could have made a shrewd investment on the winger. On the opposite wing, Santiago Cordero has signed up for next year, too, having initially arrived in January until the end of the season.

Representation from Exeter University comes in the form of Sam Morley and James McRae

Having shown glimpses of the talent that shone at the 2015 Rugby World Cup during his stay with Exeter, Cordero offers something very different to Cuthbert – a tricky, nippy jinkster in the mould of Jack Nowell. In all likelihood, the Argentine will act as Nowell’s understudy as England duty is likely to result in the Cornishman spending time away from the Chiefs camp next year. Such a signing is an indication of Baxter’s intent to find players who fit seamlessly into the team’s existing systems.

Henry Slade gets shut down by England team-mates Billy Vunipola and Alex Lozowski

Along with the two wingers, Exeter have also extended the contracts of Jack Yeandle, Harry Williams, and Steenson, the latter of whom has just completed his testimonial year. There has been recruitment in the academy, too – with representation from Exeter University coming in the form of Sam Morley and James McRae. Some of the misfits are migrating away from Devon, too. Thomas Waldrom returns to New Zealand having won the hearts and minds of the Chiefs fans. His departure leaves big boots to fill. 

With a Rugby World Cup to come in the autumn of 2019, the international recognition Exeter’s players are receiving makes for an interesting situation. The front-row of Alec Hepburn, Luke Cowan-Dickie, and Harry Williams have all established themselves on the fringes of the England side, while Jack Nowell and Henry Slade have done so in the backline. Sam Simmonds made a stellar start to his test career against Italy, too, and Jonny Hill has been selected to tour South Africa this summer, yet there are several other players who are perhaps going overlooked by Eddie Jones’ England – most notably back-row Don Armand.  

How Baxter responds to several of his players having to deal with the added pressure of playing test rugby will be revealing. The depth of the squad is notoriously strong – resulting in Anglo-Welsh Cup success this season – and, for a team that refuses to rely on a few star players, the prospect of losing one or two players to injury and loss of form resulting from their international commitments isn’t too daunting, yet it is an unwelcome one.  In many ways, Baxter may secretly hope that Eddie Jones opts to overlook the likes of Armand, winger Olly Woodburn, and Joe Simmonds.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom

It’s not all doom-and-gloom though. Exeter have qualified for next season’s Champions Cup as either a Tier 1 or Tier 2 side – having been drawn in an astonishingly tricky pool in this season’s competition, a move favourable draw will give rise to hopes that the Chiefs can go further than the quarter-final they reached in 2016.

Europe is surely the final frontier for the Chiefs. Baxter remarked after defeat to Leinster back in December that “although we have won a Premiership final and we got to another, the European thing is still is a big learn for us”. It was an admirable effort by Baxter’s men – up against Montpellier, Glasgow, and eventual-winners Leinster, an emphatic start was hampered by back-to-back defeats by Leinster. They went on to finish second in Pool 3 but missed out on qualification for the quarter-finals after a revitalisd Glasgow showed their true form in the final group game.

There were, however, plenty of positives from their European sojourn; in terms of lessons, few are as harsh or as useful as those they will have learnt at the hands of Leinster. The Dublin outfit are an imperious team, demonstrated by success in both the Champions Cup and Pro14 this season. At times it feels like watching an international side such is the slick efficiency, strength in depth, and apparent desire to win that runs through the province. Despite this, Exeter pushed Leinster close both home and away.

Crucially, for the Chiefs, Leinster have no qualms about the style of rugby they play. Under Head Coach Leo Cullen and Senior Coach Stuart Lancaster, they have tightened up their approach in the forwards, with a relentless possession-based game in the forwards representing a marriage of Exeter’s phase-play and Saracens’ physicality in the contact. With Johnny Sexton pulling the strings from number-10 it has proved an impossible juggernaut to stop this season.

There is a case to be made for recruiting an experienced stalwart in the number-10 shirt

Aside from flattering Baxter’s tactics, Sarcens’ and Leinster’s success proves that forward-power is still supreme when it comes to winning the top prize in Europe. Without a figure like Owen Farrell or Sexton, Exeter will continue to utilise the tandem pairing of Steenson and Joe Simmonds at outside-half to marshal a young pack that should improve with age and experience, particularly in the physicality stakes. There is a case to be made for recruiting an experienced stalwart in the number-10 shirt such is Simmonds’ relative rawness, yet hampering the young man’s development would fly in the face of Exeter’s model that has helped them get where they are today.

While Baxter was keen to emphasise his concern “is the future of Exeter Chiefs” after the defeat at Twickenham, fans may also be worried about the way in which he is being lined up as heir-apparent to England coach Eddie Jones. It’s an interesting situation, with certain Chiefs players overlooked by the Australian as he struggles to regain the impetus he brought to England when he first arrived. As Exeter City FC move forward without Paul Tisdale, it’s difficult to predict what would happen to the Chiefs without Baxter at the helm. Though that day will eventually come Chiefs fans will hope it doesn’t arrive any time soon.

To even be talking about such worries shows how far the Chiefs have come in eight years. Despite their loss at HQ, and the inevitable pressure that comes with maintaining and improving upon success, the Chiefs are in fine fettle.

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Wil Jones
BA English. Sport Editor for 2017-18.