A SOCIALLY distanced crowd of 2,000 season ticket holders will be permitted into the game, but Sandy Park will still be predominantly empty for this afternoon’s European Champions Cup clash between Exeter Chiefs and Glasgow Warriors.
It is better than nothing, but a shame for last year’s tournament winners that they cannot celebrate their triumphant homecoming in front of a raucous full house.
For the visitors, it is probably the best of both worlds. Some sort of background noise as opposed to the eerie silence they have become used to during their last eight outings, but not the deeply partisan atmosphere which had got into the habit of roaring Rob Baxter’s team on to ever greater success before Covid turned everything on its head earlier this year.
In fairness to Warriors, they have done a pretty decent job of building up a sizable and vocal home support of their own in recent years, but in many other ways this trip to Devon could be an instructive experience as to what a club starting from a limited financial base can achieve through a combination forward-thinking, hard-work and unwavering dedication to building more than just a team.
At the turn of the century, Exeter Rugby Club turned semi-professional and changed its name to Exeter Chiefs, but they were still languishing in the second tier of English rugby, with no realistic prospect – so far as the outside world was concerned – of ever making it to the big time.
Tony Rowe – an telecoms entrepreneur who initially got involved as a potential sponsor and ended up as chairman of the club – had other ideas, and in Baxter he had a local rugby man steeped in the club’s history who was ready and willing to drive the on-field vision.
Chiefs eventually made it to the Premiership in 2010, by which time they had relocated to their new Sandy Park home, which doubles up as a conference and banqueting centre to provide a valuable extra income stream to a club which has bucked the trend of England’s top flight by consistently living within their financial means.
In their early Premiership days, they couldn’t afford – or weren’t interested in – throwing bags of cash at high profile recruits, so continued to develop their own instead, whilst judiciously signing unheralded players with unrealised potential. Character rather than playing stats tended to be the key consideration when contracts were being handed out.
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The progress was gradual but unyielding, culminating in their historic European Champions Cup and English Premiership double at the end of the 2019-20 season.
“They built it the hard way,” acknowledged Warriors head coach Danny Wilson on Friday, as he looked ahead to this afternoon’s match.
“Not with massive budgets, [but with] a lot of local talent identification in a hotbed of rugby down there, and they’ve brought a lot of people through the club who have gone from the Championship, into the Premiership, into qualifying for Europe, and ultimately winning in Europe – so it is quite a story.
“They’ve built to a position where they can go out and sign the likes of Hoggy [Stuart Hogg] and Jonny [Gray].”
Poignantly, Hogg and Gray are two players who outgrew Warriors in recent years.
Warriors, we are told, are going through a period of transition under Wilson, but the team will always be limited in what it can achieve on the park by factors well beyond the head coach’s control.
Owned by their governing body, based at a venue leased from the local council, and with no real history beyond the dawn of the professional era, it is going to be hard for Warriors to really forge an identity and build a financial footprint like we see in Exeter – but they must if they are ever to be anything more than part of the supporting cast to the star attractions of the European game.
The extraordinary rise of Exeter Chiefs is entertainingly chronicled by Robert Kitson, rugby correspondent for The Guardian, in his recently released book entitled ‘Exe Men’ – click here to BUY.