Rugby in England has always been subject to a geographical divide emphasised by the two codes of the game. The North was a particular stronghold for Rugby League fans whilst the South was always more of a Rugby Union stronghold.
Within each code there has always been established strongholds, in Union these have been Leicester Tigers, Northampton Saints, and recently Saracens have added their name to the group. But one part of the country has always been seen as a Rugby hotbed: that region, the Southwest. However, when people talk about the Southwest and rugby the teams they usually mean are Bath, Bristol and Gloucester.
Ask many people in the Southwest and they will tell you that those places are not really in the Southwest at all, certainly not in comparison to the latest team cementing themselves in the top flight of English club rugby: the Exeter Rugby Chiefs.
Since the turn of the century, Exeter began to move up the divisions, collecting the big scalp along the way, particularly at the old County Ground. The move to Sandy Park saw the Chiefs establish themselves as the best club outside the Premiership, but the old one up one down relegation/promotion always gave an almost unfair advantage to the previous years Premiership team. The shift to a promotion play-off system gave the Chiefs their chance though and the Chiefs have now spent 3 pretty comfortable years in the top flight.
They have qualified for the Heineken Cup twice, each time having the luck to draw the defending champions in the group stage. Even so they have been to Dublin, Cardiff and Paris and won many friends as they acquitted themselves very well.
Sandy Park as a facility has won many people over and helped the Chiefs to be able to recruit and improve the playing squad. The ground has hosted England Saxons games and Churchill Cup games, and has many neutrals talking about it being one of the best set-ups in the league. It is a facility that has enabled Exeter to be named as one of the host cities for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Despite their relative recent success (Exeter won the 2014 LV Cup), there has not been much domestic international recognition for Chiefs players. Tom Johnson and Jack Nowell have both represented England, but they are the only exceptions so far. Many others have pressed their claims; Irish fly-half Gareth Steenson has established himself as one of the more reliable kickers and point scorers in the game.
In many ways though it is this lack of international recognition that is the Chiefs secret weapon (along with the vociferous crowd performing the Tomahawk chop) as each 6 Nations rolls round, the clubs who might feel they deserve a Heineken Cup place lose several players to the international squads as the domestic league carries on. Retaining the majority of first team players at this time is a big advantage for Exeter. In a World Cup year, the length of time that those players will be away from their clubs will be all the longer and likewise the Chiefs advantage will be greater.
Add to this the valuable experience of last season when the Chiefs were beaten in many of their defeats in the last few minutes, coach Rob Baxter will have learned the lessons from those games, and expect some of those heartbreaking losses to be turned into wins especially at Sandy Park.
The end of season top 4 play-offs may not be in the reach of the Chiefs just yet, but expect them to once again be looking at a Heineken Cup place at the end of the coming season. Not many teams in the Domestic or European game, will be looking forward to it, but the traditional powerhouses are shifting, and beware the Exeter Rugby Chiefs are coming.
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Main Photo Exeter Rugby Club/Pinnacle Photo Agency