Out of the pit

There are moments in sport that seem mapped out. As though the capricious nature on which the discipline has sold itself, has stepped aside. And so it was for the Aviva Premiership semi-final at Sandy Park. With just minutes on the clock, Henry Slade was handed the ball and asked to put it into touch. An inexorable rugby union storyline was about to play out.

Slade found himself inside his own half, eyeing up a kick that would position his beloved Chiefs well into Saracens’ territory. From there, the home side could build one final attack to overcome the match deficit and reach a second successive final. But as the ball left Slade’s left boot, the breeze picked up. And carried on a Devonian wind delivered by the rugby gods themselves, Slade’s punt sailed long and high, and out of touch just five metres short of the visitors try line. The resulting line out was gathered, the rolling maul was formed, and that, as they say, was that.

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The winning performance from Rob Baxter’s men, against a fantastically resolute Saracens, was just the latest chapter in Chiefs’ modern history. The well-known narrative is as follows; promoted to the top flight back in 2010, Exeter, under their wiley and pragmatic head coach, have built. They began to threaten the top four and then, last year, made their first Premiership final, only to end up second. This year, unperturbed, they went again. Culminating in yesterday’s beating of the European Champions and a faultless exhibition of breathless and all-consuming rugby, which often has opposition out on their feet.

They will visit Twickenham next weekend with a very good chance of becoming Champions of England. And yet, only seven years ago, they managed to extricate themselves from the pit that is England’s second tier. Having been promoted, they did what others hadn’t; stayed up and got better. They kept a large proportion of the Championship winning squad and looked to improve each player. In the marketplace, they did not buy big but bought clever. Each addition a well formed jigsaw piece that slotted neatly into place; players who were excess to requirements elsewhere seemed to find a new lease of life at Sandy Park. They nurtured their academy, trusted it to deliver in big matches; they fostered a team spirit that was positive, inclusive and professional. There are dodgy hair-dos down in Devon, but definitely no dickheads, as the All Blacks would say.

And so, as I marvelled at their most recent achievement on social media, a familiar phrase came out of the ether: “Exeter Chiefs are why we should keep promotion.” Perhaps it is one you have heard before; Exeter are often mooted as the shining example of rugby meritocracy. And yet, it is one that makes me smile and wince at the same time. And here’s why.

When Bob Beamon jumped out of the pit at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and set a new world record, many things had gone right. For any long jumper will tell you, leaping such a distance requires a myriad of factors to click simultaneously. Speed, trajectory, timing, torque, power, reach, bounce, even the elements and conditions, all have to harmonise. And it isn’t about maximum output either. Too much can be as harmful as too little. His 29ft 2½ inches (8.90m) at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario was truly exceptional.

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Exeter’s promotion and subsequent rise up the rankings is just so. As well as assembling the right type of player and keeping faith with coaching staff, the ground, facilities and location have been wonderfully exploited. I understand there are plans afoot to make Sandy Park even more of a local attraction with a big theatre attached to one end of the stadium; all profits will go to the club. The fan base is ideal and catchment area wide and strong; football isn’t too much of a distraction. The brand, despite some Native Indian hiccups, has caught on and they have made the deep South West their own, with fans travelling from the adjacent Somerset, Dorset and Cornwall to many home matches; the issues neighbourly Pirates have had with their ground have also worked in Chiefs’ favour.

This is not to suggest what Exeter, or indeed Beamon, have achieved has been fluke. I’m just trying to stress how difficult it is. How many things you have to get right. It is not straight-forward to achieve the Chiefs’ success. Like Bob, and indeed that kick of Henry Slade’s, the arc of Exeter’s journey has been exceptional; many, many things attuned. And therefore, it is not one you can easily hold up as an example to others. To say to lower league English rugby teams, why don’t you follow Exeter’s lead, is a bit like saying to long jumpers in the 1970s and 80s, why can’t you jump as far as Beamon? Many know what it takes, but doing it is a different matter. It took athletics 23 years to catch up with ‘the perfect leap’. I’m not sure conditions will ever be right for another rugby team to do what Exeter have done. So whilst, with all my heart, I applaud Exeter’s courage, skill, tenacity and belief, I worry that it sends out the wrong message. I don’t think they should be held up as anything other than the exception. To extend the analogy; London Welsh found themselves at the end of the runway, mis-hit the takeoff board several times, got red flagged, and were never seen again. They represent more of the norm than Exeter.

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On a matchday morning, on the Sidmouth Road near Farringdon, just a few miles from the Sandy Park Stadium, the Greendale Farm Shop is always very busy. It is one of those places that sells all sorts of farm goods and meat, has animals roaming just beyond the car park, and a cafe which serves up the meanest full English breakfast. In amongst the venison burgers and hydrangeas walk the Chiefs players. Saturday morning is the perfect time to have a cup of tea and meet up. Their wide shoulders, towering frames and Eastern European mullets shift awkwardly amongst the cramped cafe tables and yet no one seems to notice. Literally and metaphorically, they are giants. Accepted giants. Moving amongst the people inconspicuously. And this is their greatest trick. Their feats have become so commonplace that the locals barely look up from their pastries and papers. You could make a strong case to say that Exeter Chiefs are the greatest rugby club this country has ever seen. They have jumped out of the pit and yet, made it look so easy. They have managed to fool many people into thinking anyone could do it.

The end of that semi-final looked like it was just meant to be. But in a way, it wasn’t. Exeter have succeeded against the odds. We really need to remember that. They are the exception and, for me, truly exceptional.

Sam Roberts © 2017. (Text only). All Rights Reserved

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9 Responses to Out of the pit

  1. HBT says:

    Outstanding article. Exeter’s achievement as a club is that much greater. Baxter’s coaching achievement is extraordinary.
    Unparalleled. Probably unrepeatable too, as the Championship is being slowly suffocated.

    Like

  2. KL says:

    Your ability as a journalist matches those of Chiefs and Bob Beamon. Thankyou for writing about the club I follow!

    Like

  3. DrivingMaul says:

    Reblogged this on Driving Maul and commented:
    Good piece looking at Exeter Chiefs and whilst I agree it takes a lot to achieve what they have I still like to think of them as an example that the “lower” clubs can make it if they get everything right.

    Like

  4. Ashleigh Rosier says:

    Outstanding and thought provoking piece about an outstanding and thought provoking club that still most of the rest of the rugby community fail to recognize or is it that they just don’t want to talk about it as it makes them feel uncomfortable. Baxter for England!!!

    Like

  5. Janice Nunn says:

    Superb article. A pleasure to read. Thank you.

    Like

  6. MR W A SMYTHE says:

    A fantastic article, Sam. Thank you.

    Like

  7. Colin Dunn says:

    I think there is also something unique in the harmony Exeter have achieved between the commercial and rugby sides of the club. Tony Rowe has somehow managed to succeed where others, like Cecil Duckworth at Worcester, have not quite got it right.

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  8. I can only echo what others have said, Sam. This was a pleasure to read.

    Broadly speaking, I think your central point – that it’s going to be virtually impossible to repeat what the Chiefs have done – is correct. As someone who’s followed the club from the days when the really tough part of being an Exeter player was to avoid sinking into the cloying mud that passed for a pitch at the old County Ground, up to yesterday’s nerve-shredding afternoon at Twickenham, I think it’s owed plenty to good fortune as well as good planning.

    Going back to the days when the Championship was still called ‘National Division One’, there was a period of several years when we were frequently competing at the top with Worcester (as well as Rotherham, and Bristol during their years out of the Premiership), and there was a feeling that they were the club we aspired to be (Sixways, and the investment in it, of course, pre-dates Sandy Park by many years). In some ways, it does seem slightly mysterious that we’ve gone on to leave Worcester so far in our wake, and I don’t have enough detailed knowledge to make an accurate assessment of the respective approaches and levels of investment of Cecil Duckworth and Tony Rowe, but it seems to me that the bottom line is that we simply could not have done what we’ve done without Rob Baxter, and it was an outrageous piece of good fortune that we found him without having to look outside the club. It’s almost trite to list his strengths, as everyone now knows and recognizes them, but we’ll stick with his virtually unique ability to recognize hidden potential in players and bring it to the surface, and the overwhelming sense of perspective and balance which has created an environment in which those players can flourish to levels that in many cases they themselves probably didn’t realize they could achieve.

    If Worcester, and perhaps one or two other longer-established but consistently under-achieving clubs (Gloucester are comfortably the best example of this) had had him, they could probably have got close to doing what we’ve done. The trouble is that he is unique. This is a man who was put on earth to coach rugby teams.

    A final thought is that another key aspect in our rise has been our ability to draw on the wider south-western catchment area, including Cornwall. Jack and Luke are obvious examples of this, and if Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman had been born twenty years later they would never have needed to go further east than Sandy Park. And that seems like a happy accident of cultural geography.

    The bottom line, though, is that it’s been fun.

    Like

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