Exeter ready to enjoy and excel

RUGBY UNION: Wasps tackle the pride of the South-west in today's Pilkington Cup quarter-finals. Tim Glover reports
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The Independent Online
Apart from a story they had heard about Taunton cider moving out of Taunton, the good ol' boys standing around the clubhouse bar talked about nothing else but the visit of Wasps. A buzz of bravado was provided by pints of Dartmoor, a real ale with a head of Devon cream. "The player I feel sorry for is Rob Andrew," Peter Dudman, chairman of Exeter's junior section said. "He's not used to losing is he?"

While Wasps have their sights set on beating Leicester and Bath in the league, promoting the possibility of winning the championship, Exeter are in danger of relegation from the National League Three. Andrew, who took a knock against Wales last week, is unlikely to be risked in the quarter-finals of the Pilkington Cup today. The word from Wasps was that "without being patronising we should be able to handle Exeter without Rob".

Most teams in the Cup would send scouts, armed with video cameras, to report back on every move of the opposition. Andy Maunder, Exeter's scrum- half and captain, did not see much point. "We haven't formally sat down to dissect the Wasps," Maunder said. "It would be hard to start analysing a team like that. We know they're strong. We've seen them on Rugby Special. We are concentrating on our strengths and what we are going to do. We intend to make it as unpleasant as possible."

Exeter reached the last eight two years ago, chartered a train to Leicester and were beaten 76-0 by the Tigers. "It taught us a lesson," Maunder said. "The only way to approach such a game is to play your own standard of rugby. We will not make the mistake of taking them on up front but we will not be inhibited. We will move the ball as much as possible. What we want to do is show them and the crowd that we can play rugby. The supporters are bound to give us a lift. Whether or not we win we will enjoy the day. It's fantastic to get a team like Wasps down to Exeter."

The County Ground, in the parish of St Thomas, nestles at the end of Church Road, next to a cemetery and a church in which hands were once joined in prayer and are now encouraged to perform martial arts. "Welcome to the Exeter Shotokan Karate Club," says the sign in front of the stained glass windows.

There are a couple of things Wasps should know about the County Ground. It lies below the River Exe and whenever it rains (it has hardly stopped in the last month) the pitch is under water. The fifth-round match against Aspatria only went ahead after an army of volunteers spread 50 tons of sand on the ground. Another 16 tons were deposited on Thursday.

Exeter were unable to train there on Tuesday and instead enjoyed the excellent facilities, including an Astroturf surface, at the Royal Marine base at Lympstone. Apart from the prospect of having sand kicked in their faces, Wasps will not fail to be overawed by the height of the goal-posts. Each post, measuring 60ft, consists of two motorway lamp standards. Roy Pike, a former player, got them from the electricity board.

"Keep off the greyhound track in the in-touch areas," players are warned as they leave the changing rooms. There is another sign: "Our aims are simple - success, enjoyment and promotion." Exeter (nickname Exe) have never escaped from the Third Division although this season they are in grave danger of slipping into the Fourth. They would place survival even above beating Wasps.

They may be bottom of the table but they are still the strongest club in Devon and Cornwall. "We need to galvanise ourselves and secure our place amongst the rugby hierarchy," John Baxter, the chairman, said. "We cannot allow the South-west peninsular to become barren of top-class rugby. Our biggest handicap is our isolation. There is no club of similar status within 80 miles."

Exeter, inspired by a lecture given last year by Tony Russ, Leicester's director of coaching, established a fresh structure with managers, fitness advisers, coaches and physios working in tandem. The athletics coach Maria Boxall has been joined by the former club captain David Hartland, a paramedic with the Air Ambulance. If Exeter find it difficult, compared to, say, Wasps, to recruit top players they will attempt to feed off home produce. Chalky White, formerly with England, is responsible for developing a squad of 17 to 21-year-olds.

Back in the bar, Dudman was saying: "I bet you that Nigel Popplewell doesn't turn up here. He wouldn't know where the place was." The Exeter front row has a pig farmer at loose head and a publican at tight head. Dudman and the boys on the Dartmoor best are surrounded by memories of Exeter's rich history: Haydn Mainwaring, a naval man who appeared for Swansea and Wales, used to play for the Exe as did John Scott and Peter Winterbottom. But the best of the lot was Dick Manley who helped the club beat a nigh-on invincible Newport in 1950 and 13 years later was a member of an excellent England side.

There is one other thing that Wasps should know about the County Ground. The graveyard is not completely dead. When Aspatria left Exeter, one of their party, the team mascot, missed the bus and has been living among the tombstones for the past month. He is a cockerel and a show bird to boot. Wasps are not the only team with wings.

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