Exeter Chiefs: Premiership title win ends long journey to success

Exeter celebrate

It has the back story, the overcoming of adversity, the players who have been there through the journey and countless other subplots.

But according to Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter, who has been associated with the club for more than 20 years, beating Wasps 23-20 to win their maiden Premiership title on Saturday was no fairy tale.

“It does feel like it’s been a long journey getting here,” he said after their Twickenham triumph.

“I’ve never once woken up feeling it’s a dream because the people who have lived and breathed it every day know how hard we’ve worked, and they know the sacrifices that have been made.”

How did the Devon club become champions of England for the first time, having been in rugby union’s fourth tier 21 years earlier?

‘The biggest achievement of my life’

Of the more visible characters involved in the Exeter journey, chief executive Tony Rowe and Baxter himself have been two of the constants.

In 1997, Exeter were just gaining promotion from the third tier and by this point it was clear they were on an upward trajectory.

The next substantial shift was off the field – a stadium move from the old County Ground to their Sandy Park home in 2006, which paved the way for greater growth.

Gareth Steenson, Phil Dollman and Ben Moon – dubbed ‘the originals’ – were then on the scene for Exeter’s arrival into the Premiership four years later.

“When I first arrived I was in a different place,” said Steenson, who kicked the winning points in extra-time on Saturday. “I was at Cornish Pirates, I’d just lost my father and it felt a little bit closer to home because the airport was pretty close.

“You could see the vision of the club in everything it was doing. It was a place that was going to go forward, it was just a matter of when it would take the step.”

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It was fitting that fly-half Steenson, who kicked 24 points in the match that brought them up from the Championship, was once again on hand to lead his side to their biggest victory to date.

“If I’m being honest, I said a prayer to my old man upstairs and he helped me with the last kick I think,” he said.

Dollman, another Exeter veteran, also featured prominently in the win over Wasps, scoring a try before being forced off injured.

“It was nice to get a dot down – it’s something to tell the grandchildren when I get a little older,” he told BBC Radio Devon. “This is probably the biggest achievement of my life so far.”

Down, but never out

Never mind being behind in the dying moments of both the semi-final and final. Like any great story, there were moments many months earlier where it seemed Exeter would endure a season of relative mediocrity after being beaten Premiership finalists in 2015-16.

A sobering European Champions Cup defeat by Clermont at Sandy Park and losing four of their first six Premiership matches sparked crisis talks between players and management.

“I think we were patting ourselves on the back in pre-season after how well we did in 2015-16 – we probably rolled into the season if we’re honest with ourselves,” said Steenson.

“We did sit down after the Clermont game, a hiding at home, and we said ‘this season’s going to peter out for us if we don’t get our heads down’.

“We had a few harsh words and then we just grafted it out.”

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The Northern Irishman makes the healing process sound simple, but it led to Chiefs putting together an outstanding unbeaten league run from the end of October, which remains intact.

Rowe, the man who has pulled the strings off the field throughout, told BBC Radio Devon: “There was a time when I thought we couldn’t do it and we wouldn’t do it, but we did and it’s fantastic.”

It is testament to the culture at the club that Baxter, even in a moment of glory, was still keen to point out his own very rare mistakes, centring around their Anglo-Welsh Cup defeat by Leicester in March.

“The Anglo-Welsh Cup and the Premiership, they’re a tough mix – we were not committing guys into that final who were going to play in the Premiership for us,” he said.

“We didn’t want our whole squad travelling to the game, we wanted them fresh for training the next day going into the Premiership.

“That was probably a little bit wrong, because I think as a group they’re so tight and they’re so strong they wanted to be there for each other.

“Now, in hindsight, was it a good decision? Possibly. Did it hurt us a little bit as a squad? They were probably fighting against me, and I think as a group they didn’t really like it.

“It probably wasn’t good for us and it’s probably a mistake I won’t make again.”

What next?

The backbone of Exeter’s continual climb over the past couple of decades must, in part, be down to a ruthless ability within the hierarchy to shelve a success and aim for the next branch up.

No sooner had the party poppers and streamers hit the Twickenham turf, businessman Rowe was setting new challenges for his head coach.

“We set our stall out many years ago – we wanted to be Premiership champions,” he said. “Here we are, champions of England. It hasn’t quite sunk it yet but it’s just incredible.

“People probably won’t doubt us now – we are here, we’re rightful champions and we’re going to stay here – our next challenge is Europe, champions of Europe.”

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Baxter smirked knowingly when told of his boss’ grand plans but, though he was less boisterous with his words, the Exeter head coach agreed this title has to be a building block.

“The truth is we need to put a group of players together in this close season who are going to turn around and do something about the fact that we are now the Premiership champions, and do something about that to make sure it stays that way,” he continued.

“Part of that will be us playing and performing better than we did last season in Europe.

“We’ve let ourselves down in Europe for a couple of seasons now, with our performance in the first round, and it should be a marker for us that we’re not going to let that happen again.

“Within the next couple of weeks they’re all going to get a phone call or an email and be told: ‘Now is the time to pull your socks up’.”

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