Back in his days as a powerboat racer Exeter’s chairman, Tony Rowe, once broke a world speed record one misty October morning on Lake Windermere in 1976. Conditions were not ideal and he was stiff and tired having spent the previous night in an unheated camper van. Rowe was as surprised as anyone when he returned to shore to be told he had set a fastest time.
Having seen the relentless Chiefs complete the ultimate club rugby achievement by securing a Champions Cup and Premiership double at a soaking Twickenham, he now fancies another tilt at global domination, this time on dry land. Not content with having beaten all comers in Europe, the next vision is for Exeter to win a world club title within the next five years.
Fanciful? Judging by the distance Rowe and Exeter have travelled over the past decade, he does not see why it cannot happen one day. “I want Exeter to be the premier club in the world and we can do that. I said [in 2017] we’d do Europe in five years. How about we do the world in the next five? It would be nice to have a world club game.”
The idea of the top team in Europe and/or the Premiership facing off against the Super Rugby champions is not a new one, with the congested fixture list a perpetual stumbling block. With the private equity firm CVC looking to refresh the calendar, however, a money-spinning inter-hemisphere finale has clear televisual appeal.
The Chiefs versus the Crusaders? It might confuse a few in the Waikato but in Devon they love the sound of it.
And why not? If the past few weeks have proved anything it is that Exeter have the potential to hoist multiple trophies in the coming few years. Outstandingly coached, cleverly assembled and tightly knit teams often find winning becomes a habit and Rowe believes this season’s prizes could merely be the start. “Usually in a squad that’s done what we’ve done, you have old heads. But our old heads are actually young men. That squad has another three or four years before you’d think they are old, and they are getting better. We’ve got one of the best coaching groups in the northern hemisphere; you keep doing what we are doing.”
Perhaps the biggest immediate barrier, with Saracens now temporarily out of the picture, is the increasing likelihood of the Chiefs’ best players disappearing on international duty. Rob Baxter is already wary of how stretched they will be when the new campaign commences in less than four weeks’ time, with someone such as Henry Slade either set to be absent with England or required to rest for large chunks of the next five months.
Small wonder Rowe is not a great fan of the notion of playing more Tests to boost the sport’s finances. “All this stuff coming down about more international games – I am totally against that. We employ the players. Being forced to release them for so many international games is not good. We don’t get compensated enough. The reality is that we bred these guys for ourselves, we didn’t breed them for England.
2019-20 honours board: European Champions Cup: Exeter Chiefs European Challenge Cup: Bristol Bears Gallagher Premiership champions: Exeter Chiefs Pro 14 champions: Leinster Premiership Rugby Cup champions: Sale Sharks European Champions Cup 2020/21 Premiership qualifiers: Exeter Chiefs, Wasps, Bristol Bears, Bath, Sale Sharks, Harlequins, Gloucester, Northampton.
“England can get too greedy. They are very quick to run the other way when we want money. At the moment we are desperate for money in the Premiership to stay alive; we are one of the wealthier clubs and we will see it through but some clubs are really struggling. We should be able to turn to the RFU for financial support because they turn to us when they want our players.”
As things stand, any organisation or business could learn lessons from the way the Chiefs have steadily built year on year, reaching determinedly for the sky while staying in touch with their down‑to‑earth West Country roots. Thirteen of the starting XV on Saturday were either born or reared in the south west or plucked from lower level obscurity; aside, curiously, from locks and full-backs, Devon and Cornwall remains a fertile breeding ground.
Wasps also deserve massive credit for contributing to a gripping 19-13 contest of a higher standard than might have been expected in atrocious conditions. Their biggest regret will be the botched lineout that allowed the Chiefs to wriggle out of a tight defensive spot late on but Exeter’s subsequent composure and execution was as impressive as it was against Racing 92 the previous week.
Even those who have only latterly climbed aboard the Chiefs’ fun bus cannot quite believe how much they are enjoying the experience. “Jonny Gray’s been with us one season and he is over the moon,” Rowe said. “He’s a Scottish international with 57 caps and he’s like: ‘I love this!’”
Exeter can no longer rely on the retired Gareth Steenson and Phil Dollman but, if anything, the club’s horizons are still expanding.