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.
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.
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.
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