Story of the ‘Exe Men’ points the way to making professional rugby work

Robert Kitson's book, 'Exe Men', takes you on a deep dive into one of the most remarkable success stories of the professional rugby era

Exeter Chiefs have risen from near obscurity during the last decade to become the dominant force in European rugby. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Exeter Chiefs have risen from near obscurity during the last decade to become the dominant force in European rugby. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

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.


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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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Exe Men: The Extraordinary Rise of the Exeter Chiefs

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.


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About David Barnes 2991 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

7 Comments

  1. Don’t forget though-Exeter have done all of this with a s**t-tonne of cash. It’s not quite the fairytale story of a wee poor club conquering Europe that people like to make it out to be. Yes it’s a well run club (from a rugby perspective at least, not so sure about the attitude towards native Americans), but It’s unfair to compare them to the pro teams. They have a far greater budget than Ed or Glas, a lot of which is a basically a result of being in a country with a higher population (tv deal) and have had the money to realise the rugby vision of Rob Baxter. The Scottish clubs definitely do not have that luxury. They also have a huge foreign contingent don’t forget.

  2. Seems that Scottish rugby has been irretrievably left behind since the advent of professional era, who is to blame for this can be debated endlessly but sadly we are where we are now and have to work our way back up from a low base as Exeter have. Strengthening links between clubs and their regional pro teams surely a key step in this process. Whilst accepting reality of project players these should be a few judiciously selected ‘projects’, we need to stop importing second and third rate foreign players who are blocking opportunities and hence progress of young Scottish players. Supporters from outside Glasgow and Edinburgh are more likely to ‘buy into’ their respective regional / pro teams if they’re watching their own club players progression rather than foreign journeymen. The financial resources spent plugging gaps with poorly chosen foreign signings should be redirected to grass roots club and school rugby to help produce the players of the future.

  3. Well, Iain – difficult to do as you suggest using one or other (or both) of two contrived, misfiring and clearly unsustainable foreigner-populated “Super Teams” or “ProTeams” that aren’t proper “clubs” (detached from the reality of grassroots community-based clubs in their respective areas, far less the rest of Scotland) that their struggling, financially-embarrassed Governing Body owners have proved incapable of managing in any consistent, balanced or coherent manner over the past two decades.

    I look forward to reading a rational, reasoned, joined-up rebuttal of the above!

    We must question cost-effectiveness what value the present professional & development set-up is delivering for the whole of Scottish rugby, including Scottish Rugby…..

    • Ron, I agree totally regarding Glasgow and Edinburgh, their role is more a supply chain to the National team and they are under the control of the SRU. I do not have this anti foreign player attitude. If they are “ project players” then all we are doing is making use of the current residential rules that exist. Even such powerful Nations such as France , England and NZ use these rules to their advantage. I will state that these rules on residency that exist are nonsense and are detrimental to the development of the tier 2 Nations, however self preservation exists amongst the elite. I do object to poor foreign imports being brought in, especially when we have home bred talent that could be as good.
      My main reference to creating a club culture refers to club rugby. It is a fallacy to think the shortage of cash is the root problem of our club game. Time after time I have witnessed clubs wasting hard earned cash on paying average players to climb up the league ladder, I have not witnessed to many success stories when this has been done. Club culture is based round the ethos of our game which unfortunately many clubs have forgotten about in their quest for winning at all cost on the pitch. I have witnessed this at my own club where we were drifting in the wrong direction, our DoR was fundamental in changing things, yes winning was important but far more important was the club house culture involving players and supporters, this does not cost money. I see it at other clubs through the leagues. Leith Accies who I have no involvement at all are proof at what can be achieved with the right people in charge.
      I also witness depressing sights of empty club rooms and players leaving straight after the match, this is not what rugby is about. Exeter have created this at the highest level, Leicester used to be the leaders on this front but for whatever reason they have lost it for the mean time.
      Creating a vibrant club culture does not happen over night, in fact it takes years, likewise with the wrong people in charge with the wrong agenda it can be lost very quickly. Cheers. Iain

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  4. The story of the Chiefs is not only relevant to the professional game but all our clubs can learn from them. How important it is to create an identity and build on values.

    • Well, Iain – difficult to do as you suggest using one or other (or both) of two contrived, misfiring and clearly unsustainable foreigner-populated “Super Teams” or “ProTeams” that aren’t proper “clubs” (detached from the reality of grassroots community-based clubs in their respective areas, far less the rest of Scotland) that their struggling, financially-embarrassed Governing Body owners have proved incapable of managing in any consistent, balanced or coherent manner over the past two decades.

      I look forward to reading a rational, reasoned, joined-up rebuttal of the above!

      We must question cost-effectiveness what value the present professional & development set-up is delivering for the whole of Scottish rugby, including Scottish Rugby…..

    • I suppose some clubs might argue that they have built that kind of identity and brought through plenty of young players, but weren’t rewarded when S6 was brought in.

      Credit to Exeter though for what they’ve achieved.

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