Chiefs get ready to go on war path
HEINEKEN CUP:Coach Rob Baxter has challenged his players to stay true to the Exeter Chiefs’ playing philosophy as they face the might of Leinster
THERE MAY have been a temptation to patronise the Exeter Chiefs in the recent past, portraying them as a plucky little Devon club who defied convention by clambering from National League One into the Premiership in 2010 following a series of unsuccessful skirmishes in the play-offs.
When they qualified for the Premiership by beating Bristol in the first ever Championship final, a popular contention outside the club would have been that they had reached the pinnacle and that it would be a fleeting ascent. They smashed through that ceiling of expectation, finishing eighth in their first campaign and then last season progressed further in claiming fifth spot and a place in the Heineken Cup to boot.
Going into the final weekend of the league proper, they had a chance of making the semi-final play-offs but succumbed to the Northampton Saints.
Strip away the accoutrements of the modern day professional sporting franchise and an identity borrowed from the bygone days of the American Wild West. Ignore the Red Indian metaphors like Chiefs, Braves (a name given to their second team), the large drums that beat out time as their supporters belt out the Tomahawk Chop, brandishing in tandem, foam or inflatable replicas.
That is the pageantry; the marketing smoke signals attuned to the commercial environment but it can not camouflage the substance of what has been achieved on and off the pitch. The twin totems of chairman and chief executive Tony Rowe and coach Rob Baxter have been the primary facilitators in transforming the fortunes of an ambitious club.
Rowe was first approached by the club over 20 years ago seeking a £4,000 investment to put his name on the club jerseys. His South West Communications Group is the club’s main sponsors and alongside his fellow directors, the successful businessman has displayed the sort of financial husbandry that must draw envious glances from rivals clubs.
The Chiefs made a profit before tax of £116,142 (€144,290); only one of three Premiership clubs to return a profit last season.
That figure may have been down on the £711,651 (€884,127) from the previous term, but turnover was up more than £100,000 (€124,236) at £8,366,907 (€10,394,710).
Rowe recently concluded negotiations to buy Leeds Carnegie’s P (Premiership) shares for £5 million (€6,211,800). In 2005 the 13 English Premiership clubs came up with a mechanism for apportioning revenue from a central fund. Current founder member shares are worth £600,000 (€745,830) a season.
On promotion to the elite league a club is given B shares and then five A shares up to a maximum of 40, is awarded after six unbroken years in the Premiership: for every season a club falls outside the Premiership they lose five A shares.
Exeter were entitled to buy A shares from Leeds because the latter have been outside the Premiership for more than a year. Rowe is currently involved in raising £7.5 million in a preference share issue for the redevelopment of the club’s home ground, Sandy Park – it would raise the capacity from 10,750 to 20,600 – and the construction of a new training complex at Clyst St Mary.
The development is contingent upon receiving planning permission from the Exeter City Council but the feedback from potential investors is positive.
The Chiefs moved from the County Ground, their home for the majority of their existence since the foundation of the club in 1872, to Sandy Park in 2006.
Ambition off the pitch is predicated on success on it and coach Rob Baxter has certainly delivered since taking over as head coach in 2009, having previously assisted Pete Drewett: prior to that he played for Exeter for 14 years, 10 of them as captain. His younger brother Richard (34) is the current number eight.
The Baxter boys, grew up outside Exeter on a 300-acre farm, sheep and cattle, and espouse the virtues of those that work on the land, integrity of effort and dedication. They understand the importance of the relationship between the club and community – the Chiefs support 18 local charities – and are able to communicate that message to new arrivals.
It’s slightly unfair to portray the club as a home for waifs and strays but there are few marquee names amongst a cosmopolitan squad that includes English, Irish, Welsh, Argentinians, Samoans, Australians, a New Zealander and a Fijian.
There are some excellent players, led by former Shannon man Tom Hayes, but the Chiefs are poster boys for a team, whose sum is far greater than any individual contribution.
There is much to admire in the manner in which Rob Baxter and his coaching team of Ali Hepher and Ricky Pellow – they all signed contract extensions until the end of the 2014-2015 season – have not only achieved remarkable success but the manner in which the Chiefs play. Quite apart from the hardnosed attitude to the rudiments of the sport, they possess an excellent offloading game, buoyed by a desire to keep the ball in hand.
Aside from their eighth and fifth places in the Premiership, Exeter reached the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup last season, winning all three home matches and only losing narrowly away to Stade Francais. This season they hammered the Sale Sharks and also beat both Saracens and Premiership champions, Harlequins at Sandy Park.
Rob Baxter has a refreshingly positive attitude to the dual demands that will be placed on his squad this season. “First and foremost, you know have to perform flat out in it. But the groups are so tough, you’re not dead and buried if you lose a game. If you’re good at home and you pick up some bonus points, some of those pools can be very, very interesting.
“We’ve got a group of players who enjoy being in the Premiership, they were fantastic in the Amlin, and for an awful lot of them, this will be their first opportunity in the Heineken Cup. Whatever happens they’ll be better individual players for it, and we’ll be a better team. As far as I’m concerned, qualifying for the Heineken Cup is pluses all round.
“I’ve heard people say we’ll struggle with having to deal with the Premiership and Heineken Cup – but why? What’s negative about your players playing against some of the best players in the world in one of the best rugby competitions in the world? How does that make you a worse team?
“Obviously injuries and fatigue can happen, but are you a better team and a better player for playing in a Heineken Cup game? Of course you are.”
While acknowledging Leinster’s quality, he has challenged his players to stay true to the Chiefs’ playing philosophy. “We will approach the Leinster game in a very similar manner (to the Harlequins match). There is no point saying we are going to go to Leinster and just kick the ball behind them and see if we can defend for 80 minutes.
“We will play; we are a good side when we do that and I want the players to go over there and enjoy it.
“We’ll only get better as a team and give ourselves a chance if we enjoy it for 80 minutes. That means 15 guys getting the ball in their hands and they are involved in the game.
“If we run away from the game there is no point playing; we won’t improve as a side, we won’t have enjoyed an intense game of Heineken Cup rugby.
“I don’t think it is giving our game plan away to say we will go for it because that is what we tend to do.”
Leinster have been warned and will be hoping that there are no pale faces come the final whistle at the RDS this afternoon.