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FEATURE Exeter ready themselves for one last hurrah before break-up

Exeter ready themselves for one last hurrah before break-up
1 year ago

Will there be one more spin round the floor for the Last Dance brigade? Is there one last snarl from the underdog-turned champion-turned underdog? In many ways Exeter are back where they started, unheralded and unfancied as they travel to Bordeaux to take on defending Euro masters, La Rochelle, a team that has been chiselled from that same block of granite as their English opponents. Prepare to meet thy maker Exeter, to encounter a team that was nurtured away from the heartlands of French rugby, outliers with a point to prove. Oh, and they’ve got Levani Botia. Yikes.

There was a time in the not very distant past where you would get nowt from a Chiefs side in opposition unless you were at your most ferocious, unrelenting self. That mantle has been passed to the likes of Ronan O’Gara’s side, themselves shaped with the self-same cussed, never-say-die spirit imbued in the Cork man from a very early age. O’Gara played in several versions of Miracle Matches for Munster. Exeter could do with saying a few Hail Marys themselves before going out to play.

Jack Yeandle
Exeter Chiefs gave the well-travelled Stormers a metaphorical bloody nose as they rolled back the years (Photo by David Davies/Getty Images)

Exeter are not the force that once they were. That much is obvious. That much is admitted.  “We are on a rebuild,” said coach, Ali Hepher, at the turn of the year. “We are where we are – a mid-table team.” Get snapping underdog.

And yet, as the end nears for this fabulously gifted generation, there has been just enough of a spark evident in their performances of late to kindle much-needed hope in the breasts of their supporters as they head over the water for one final shot at glory together. Stormers at Sandy Park? Smashed. Montpellier at Sandy Park? Er, sneaked through by a ruling that many of us did not even know about. And with enormous help from a wholly dodgy red card. Even so, that’s two hefty notches on the belt, almost like old times. Make my generals in battle fierce and unremitting for sure but above all else, make them lucky.

There were emotional scenes at Sandy Park only last weekend as the Devon faithful bid farewell to a legion of black-shirted heroes who are on the move at the end of the season.

If victory were to come at the Stade Chaban-Delmas on Sunday it would be a win to rank alongside any that Exeter have achieved over the last decade, since first they showed themselves to be far more than merely making up the numbers in the Premiership following their promotion in 2010. Given that many of us spent a lot of time cleaning eggs from our faces as we gave the Devon newcomers a patronising tap on the head, admiring their pluck but never believing that they would come to rule over the Premiership and Europe in such a stirring  way, it would be foolhardy now to adopt the same dismissive approach when weighing up their chances of emulating that European achievement of 2020.

They have skin in this semi-final game and that is all that they can ask for as the narrative of this particular era comes to a close. There were emotional scenes at Sandy Park only last weekend as the Devon faithful bid farewell to a legion of black-shirted heroes who are on the move at the end of the season, a juncture that is now possibly only a matter of days away. No more Simmonds brothers. No more unsung Ian Whitten or Dave Ewers, two players in particular who typify what the Chiefs have been all about – unfussy and uncompromising. No more Luke Cowan-Dickie and the man with the most expensive Tweeting fingers in the land, Jack Nowell, who looks to be in with a decent shout of appearing against the very club he is joining next season, La Rochelle.  There are several others, too, who will not wear Exeter colours again, 19 in all right across and through the squad.

Dave Ewers
There will be tearful farewells to some Exeter legends if they fail to overcome a jumbo-sized La Rochelle pack (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

Like so many businesses Exeter have had to come to terms with harsh economic circumstances. As one of those who led the chorus of disapproval aimed at Saracens, there could be no short-cuts taken when it comes to salary cap matters. Exeter chairman, Tony Rowe, knows his way round a financial spreadsheet and there was simply no alternative. The salary cap was reduced, budgets trimmed, costs cut and players off-loaded. You won’t find anyone crying tears down those Devon highways and byways. Rob Baxter in particular has lived his time dealing with the daily truths of farm life where there is no such thing as unfairness, only reality. The long-term future is for another day. Events on Sunday afternoon are the pressing matter.

Exeter have managed to rally and scuffle their way into Europe for next season but there have been too many sub-par displays for them to take any real satisfaction from the campaign.

Baxter may no longer be at the sharp-end of prepping the team but if there is one quality that the Chiefs need to take into the Bordeaux fray it is the no-nonsense attitude of the man who more than anyone helped bring success to Sandy Park. Exeter have to trade in basics on Sunday afternoon. Just as they did against the Stormers, the Chiefs have to take the game to their opponents at every turn. It is a simple message but one that has been ignored by the players in this unfulfilling season. Exeter have manged to rally and scuffle their way into Europe for next season but there have been too many sub-par displays for them to take any real satisfaction from the campaign.

And that is what Sunday’s match could turn upon. This really does represent a chance of redemption, a tilt against the odds, a shot to nothing. “We will turn up next weekend,” was Baxter’s laconic take as he looked forward to the trip. He knows it the size of the challenge, one that has to be taken on without Wales lock, Dafydd Jenkins, who mises out through suspension following his red card last weekend against Bristol.

Uini Atonio
La Rochelle have already outmuscled Gloucester and Saracens and will fancy their chances in Bordeaux (Photo by ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/Getty Images)

The scene is set for ‘The Exe Men,’ as Guardian rugby correspondent, Robert Kitson so aptly titled his definitive book on the rags-to-riches tale of the Devon heroes, to put on a show. The task is as daunting as it comes but not without possibility for a team that grafted for every last bit of success that came its way. More of that indomitable spirit is the very basic requisite. If victory were to ensure – and that’s an ‘if’ of immense proportions – then the Guardian’s man can expect a call from his publisher to get another chapter ready.

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