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FEATURE 'Exeter Chiefs represent the straight-shooting honesty of English rugby'

'Exeter Chiefs represent the straight-shooting honesty of English rugby'
6 months ago

Exeter Chiefs could legitimately claim to be the most successful club in English Premiership history.

Not so much in silverware won: Exeter have won two championships and appeared in four losing finals, numbers dwarfed by Wasps’ five titles, Saracens’ six and Leicester’s nine in the professional era since 1996. Nor in any simple, linear progression to triumph in Europe, where the Chiefs’ solitary victory in 2019-20 does not match up with two apiece by Wasps and Tigers, and three by the men from North London.

But in terms of sustainable growth, representing your region through player recruitment and balancing the books financially, Exeter have been an outstanding success story. Roll back a few years, beyond the impenetrable fog of Covid-19, to one of the most revealing rugby surveys of recent times, published in The Guardian. In that deep-dive investigation, 12 of the 13 Premiership clubs recorded swollen financial losses despite reporting increases in turnover. The only club in the black was Exeter, with a turnover boost of over £3m and an overall profit of £500,000 for the year.

Within three more years, two of the clubs ahead of the Chiefs in the silverware stakes took significant hits to their professional reputations. In January 2020, Saracens were found to be in breach of the Premiership’s salary cap regulations for three consecutive seasons between 2016 and 2019. According to the Guardian report, the Barnet-based outfit were still making a £4m loss per annum despite owner Nigel Wray writing off £48m in loan debt. Then Wasps disappeared into the black hole of administration with debts totalling over £95m in late 2022.

All the while, Exeter found ways to win on the field while obeying the rules of the game off it. If anyone has shown how a rugby club can be managed successfully in the professional era, it is owner Tony Rowe and director of rugby Rob Baxter. Chiefs were the only English club to reach the semi-final stage of the Champions Cup in 2022-23, despite a huge upheaval in personnel.

Over the past two seasons, Exeter have suffered an unparalleled exodus of high-quality international talent which would have been enough to put a lesser organisation out of business for good.

Up front, the Chiefs lost the core of their title-winning forward pack: Harry Williams, Ben Moon and Luke Cowan-Dickie departed from the front-row, and a large cadre of big men, including Sam Skinner, Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds and Jannes Kirsten behind it. They even suffered in silence when their heart was ripped out, waving goodbye to Dave Ewers and Don Armand.

In the backline Jack Nowell, Stuart Hogg, Joe Simmonds, Ian Whitten, Solomone Kata, Jack Maunder, Tom O’Flaherty and Facundo Cordero all either left the club for pastures new, or retired completely from the game. Effectively, the Devon club forged ahead having lost a full international team in double-quick time.

It is the recruitment model which has sustained them in times of trouble. They have recruited well from the tier slightly below full international level while obeying the new budgetary constraints. Their talent-trawl picked up Ehren Painter from Northampton Saints, Ethan Roots and Joe Hawkins from the Ospreys in Wales, a clutch of players from Wasps, including Dan Frost, Greg Fisilau, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Alfie Bell.

Add a sprinkle of glitter – ex-Brumbies and Wallaby veteran Scott Sio, ‘the second coming of Alun-Wyn Jones’ Dafydd Jenkins with Fiji-born Cornish Pirate Rus Tuima alongside him in the second row. Suddenly, there was some new material for Baxter and his coaches to mould.

The Devonians currently sit sixth in the Premiership but only four points off the lead, and Baxter cleverly downplayed expectation ahead of their clash with three-time Champions Cup winners mighty Toulon, at their intimidating Stade Mayol.

“This is a great opportunity for the team to learn and gain a fantastic experience about the kind of games that, in the future, we will have some expectation of winning,” he said.

“But I’m certainly not going to run before I can walk, and [I’m] not going to try to put too much pressure on the guys.

“So, our expectation is to go there and be absolutely flat out physically, and see where that takes us in the competitive side of the game.

“We’re not going there to just throw the ball around and smile and laugh in the sun, we’re going there to play a serious game of rugby and take everything out of the game we can.”

With that kind of outward-facing attitude, you cannot really fail. The Exeter style also translates well when the tempo of play hots up. The Chiefs are used to playing at ball-in-play ‘high altitude’: in the 2022-23 Premiership season, they averaged the highest ball-in-play time at just under 40 minutes per game, and enjoyed the most attacking minutes (21.7’) within that frame. They built the most average rucks (116 per game) with the highest ratio of lightning-quick ball (60%).

The Chiefs know how to sustain attacking effort. In their title-winning heyday of the 2019-20 season, they could always play off nine around the fringes with huge advantage-line carriers such as Ewers, and they could always shift the point of attack swiftly to the edge via their second playmaker Henry Slade, so cruelly overlooked at the 2023 World Cup.

Not many defensive sides could manage those attacking shifts consistently, especially when they were repeated in an extended, multi-phase sequence of play. When they got to the red zone inside the opposition 22, the Chiefs were killers – they just stayed there until they scored.

At Stade Mayol, Exeter could only offer Sio, Jenkins and Slade against that constellation of international stars represented by Charles Ollivon, Gabin Villiere, Melvyn Jaminet, Baptiste Serin [all France] Beka Gigashvili [Georgia], Brian Alainu’uese [Samoa], Waisea Nayacalevu [Fiji], David Ribbans [England], Ben White [Scotland] and Leicester Fainga’anuku [New Zealand]. But the Chiefs stayed true to themselves and their principles, and the game they built was not only good enough to “play a serious game of rugby” with their hosts, it was good enough to beat them on their own patch.

With only six points separating the teams and four minutes to play, Exeter won a scrum penalty before setting their tried-and-trusted offensive method in motion.


An excellent first-up drive by Exeter number eight Greg Fisilau opens the path for dangerous sniper Stu Townsend around the fringes on the next phase. With the spadework done off  nine the Chiefs applied the next part of their formula, utilizing the second and third man on attack.


As soon as progress has been made up the middle, Exeter have their number 10 and 15 shift from one side of the field to the other, so that they can complete not one, but two or three passes to maximize the distance the D has to cover on the next phase. Then they take the same theme in the opposite direction.


Three passes and a solid wide ruck take play all the way to the Toulon 5m line. Then it is time for Exeter’s time-honoured goal-line attack, which proved virtually unstoppable for a couple of seasons in England and Europe alike.



The Chiefs love to overload the wide side of the ruck at cleanout time, with both replacement hooker Max Norey and number five Jenkins crashing down over the right side of the ball-carrier in the first clip.

That opens the corner for a procession of big men carrying with power, and it all finishes with South African Jacques Vermeulen plunging over halfway to the poles. Even then, Slade had the sangfroid to overcome an interruption in his kicking routine, with the referee deciding he had to take the kick from five metres further out, before converting the winning goal.

Perhaps more than any other professional club in the country, Exeter Chiefs represent the straight-shooting honesty of English rugby: staying within their means financially, and steadfastly refusing to bust the integrity of their wage structure for any star player; trawling the southwest from Penzance at the tip of Cornwall to the invisible recruitment boundaries of Bath and Bristol in the east; adding players below the international threshold and welding them into a unified force with a single purpose. Working from the ground up.

Maybe the dissolution of Wasps, Worcester and London Irish had a silver lining after all. Maybe it has shaken the last cobwebs of complacency out of the English rugby system.

English clubs only won 44% of their Champions Cup fixtures last season, but they emerged victorious in seven out of eight games at the weekend. Has the sleeping giant of world rugby awoken? If it has, it may want to tip its hat to the sustainable template handed down by those pioneers in deepest Devon.


Clive 194 days ago

I find it hard to believe that a purported rugby journo thinks Tony Rowe is the “owner”. Exeter Chiefs is a members club.

neil 194 days ago

Nick, one more thing in addition to ‘managing’ the club and improving the players, is the ethos of the club. Rob is the first to put a ‘slab (or 2)’ on the bus for the work hard - pay hard way of life a true rugby club should be. Maybe it’s not politically correct to talk about having a drink after the game, but it is a fact of life, and at times the Chiefs know how to do that. But, wo be tide any player who turns up late or dehydrated for the next training session!!!!

d 194 days ago

Thanks Nick. Always good to read about Exeter who you have shown have a history of Aussie players. Would love to see that partnership formalised.

The Exeter model seems ideal and successful. With their ball in hand style, does this require a higher level of fitness? Or just a clear game plan? They make it look easy when I watch them but I know it's not

Mzilikazi 195 days ago

“It is the recruitment model which has sustained them in times of trouble.” Looking the current squad, Exeter have indeed picked up some good players for Rob Baxters coaching team to work with. And just worth remembering, as an aside, that Rob Baxter is Tavistock born, and a player of 14 years with the club, ten as captain. Man, that alone is pure gold…the club is in his blood !

In addition to the newly recruited players you mention, Nick, I also see some very useful names on their roster. Jonny Gray, Henry Slade, big names, Jacques Vermeulen, Ollie Devoto. Christ Tshiunza, developed by the club as he is just 21 ? And Patrick Schickerling, at 25, still his best years ahead, one would hope.

Only one Australian nowadays, Scott Sio. he has, imo, developed a lot with age and experience. Changed days, when Exeter had that core of Australians, led by Nic White and Greg Holmes.

Mzilikazi 195 days ago

Good evening Nick. The cloud is siting down on he escarpment this morning here inToowoomba, with thin veils of mist brushing the tops on the towering gum trees. There is a cyclone, Jasper, Cat. 1, sitting just of the coast, north of Cairns, set to cross within a few hours. Very unlikely to affect us down here. Hope the damage is not great, and there is no loss of life.

Yes, great article on a great and historic club. A quick bit of research shows the club dates back to 1871, and that” the club hosted the first match played by New Zealand on English soil (1905) , and also in the Northern Hemisphere” And I also read that the name “All Blacks” originates from that game. To be where the club is today is something to be immensely proud of, including the financial status of the club.

That win against Toulon really surprised me. Now I have not yet watched the game, nor have I watched either team play this year. But I follow the Top 14, Gallagher and URC results closely, and would judge from results that Toulon are on the rise again after a few lean years. Sitting second on the Top 14 log currently, that looked a formidable ask for Exeter currently sixth in their league.

I will sit down and watch the game, enhanced with your excellent analysis in my mind, Nick. I‘m not one who minds knowing the outcome of a game before hand

Samuel 195 days ago

A great article. If it wasn’t true before the demise of three clubs last year, now it’s very difficult to argue that the West Country isn’t the English game’s heartland - nearly half the Premiership is now made up of south west clubs and I’d be willing to wager all four of them have stronger than average attendances for the league too. The article perhaps overlooks the contribution of the Chiefs’ academy - Slade is the highest profile graduate left in the time now that Nowell, Ewers and the Simmonds brothers have left, but the likes of Tuima, Wyatt, Hammersley and Norey are all making their mark this year. They regularly improve players to international standard too - Baxter is gifted at seeming to be able to coax just a little bit more from players than they feel they’re capable of IMO.

Mzilikazi 195 days ago

Thank you for a great article , Nick. Too late here in Qld. to comment sensibly, back tomorrow morning

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