Rob Baxter’s initial response to being given an OBE in the New Year Honours list was to suspect it might be a prank.
Exeter’s director of rugby has been recognised after masterminding a domestic and European double last season, a decade after the Chiefs secured promotion into the English top flight for the first time.
Captain and fly-half Joe Simmonds has also been honoured for his role in transforming the club into the continent’s dominant force by receiving an MBE.
“I couldn’t quite work out if it was real or whether it was spam or someone having bit of a prank!” Baxter told the PA news agency.
“It turned up by email and not in an official letter. You download it, read it and check who it has been emailed from with a Google search!
“I was sat there with my wife, both of us in a slightly bemused state. My family are delighted. There’s a bit of surprise. My wife and my family are my biggest supporters. They said ‘well done, well deserved’.
“There’s a little bit of embarrassment on my end that I was the guy with the award on the back of the journey the rugby club have had.
“I see it as a fantastic honour but while I’m the guy who tends to pick up the accolades, I know an awful lot of people have worked extremely hard at the rugby club to make us successful.
“It started a long time ago and has involved a lot of people. My overriding emotion is to thank them because their dedication and hard work needs recognising.”
Exeter became the fourth English club to complete the Gallagher Premiership and Champions Cup double, joining Leicester, Wasps and Saracens, but it is their success in reaching the pinnacle from humble origins that captures the imagination.
When the game turned professional in 1995, the Chiefs were operating in the fourth tier. They gained promotion to the Premiership in 2010 and have built steadily since, culminating in a trophy-laden 2019-20.
“It’s been a slow and steady progress. In the first year we were in the Heineken Cup, we went to Leinster for our very first game,” Baxter said.
“Leinster didn’t really know what to expect and we lost the game by only three points and we probably should have won based on the balance of the game. That showed that we could compete.
“Once you know you can compete in games, you’ve got something to build on. You need stepping stones to work from and that was one of them.
“The year we reached the quarter-finals (losing 25-24 to Wasps) was another one because we knocked over some good teams that year. We had to fight to get there and we lost in a nailbiter.
“So there have been markers that have shown we can do it and our consistency over the last few years in the Premiership has shown us we should become a more consistent performer in Europe.
“There have been tough times too – hidings at Clermont and Toulon. But they were markers too because they never really hurt us. We’ve always got better from the defeats.
“We won the double but have lost since. Our challenge will be how we deal with a slap in the face and a loss, how we rebuild our consistency and how we deal with it emotionally.
“As a group we will have to stay strong if we have a sticky period. When it gets tough, that’s when you have your markers of whether you’re a good rugby club.”
Simmonds is recognised in the list as a gifted 24-year-old playmaker who still has his best years ahead of him.
“People have overly focused on the fact he captains the team and have forgotten to appreciate how well he has been playing,” Baxter said.
“His quality of performance made him a really important leader for us last season because he was an easy person to follow.
“He’s emotionally involved in the club and that’s what leadership is about. When he talks, you can see it really means something to him.”
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