With their soaring "Tomahawk Chop" chant rolling out of the stands and away over to Dartmoor, the kings of the Premiership's new frontier sent Gloucester back to Kingsholm to salve their bloodied scalps. Exeter Chiefs arrived in the top flight with an uproarious win in something approaching a cup-final atmosphere and though their stalwart coach, Rob Baxter, wisely restrained any notion of a lap of honour and declared his preference for apple cider over champagne, it was quite just that the promoted club's supporters in this small but happy part of England's west went wild. It is Leicester away next week, but that can wait.
This had always looked a decent first-up fixture for Exeter, who spent 13 years in the second division before making the longed-for leap via wins over Bristol, home and away, in May's Championship final. Gloucester came into this one with their captain, Mike Tindall, fretting over his side's tendency to repeat defensive mistakes. As one of the four clubs never to have been relegated since leagues began in 1987 – Bath, Leicester and Wasps are the others – they have the history and yesterday they had seven England internationals to the Chiefs' none. But Gloucester have weak links in the pack, their line-out fell apart in the second half and the sometimes breath-taking flashes from James Simpson-Daniel in the backs never quite complemented the good work the forwards did in the scrum.
Exeter were fit, fired-up and focused. They had met their opponents only twice before competitively, in cup matches at Kingsholm, and Nicky Robinson certainly lost his bearings at this modern model of an out-of-town stadium, hard by the motorway, missing all five of his goal kicks including the conversions of tries in each half by Simpson-Daniel and Tim Taylor. The 13 points forfeited were costly, considering Exeter were never more than 12 ahead. They were only that 13 minutes from the end, when their master blaster from Ulster, the fly-half Gareth Steenson, squirted over a drop goal to add to his conversion of Mark Foster's try in the fifth minute, and four penalties. Steenson did not miss and the 26-year-old said, with a modicum of sympathy for his opposite number: "The wind here takes a bit of getting used to."
Foster might have prevented Simpson-Daniel scoring after 12 minutes with a better tackle but otherwise Exeter's left wing and their other former Gloucester player, the scrum-half Haydn Thomas, performed superbly. If one man summed them up it was Tom Johnson, for his irresistible surges round the fringes.
The Chiefs' chairman and long-time benefactor, Tony Rowe, confided he had not slept a wink on Friday night. Exeter were champions of the third division in 1996-97 and have been striving for this day ever since, finishing second or third seven times.
The former England prop and professional West Countryman Gareth Chilcott opined on BBC radio that "Bath used to be the gateway to the south west; it's moved an hour down the M5." But no one at the Rugby Football Union has been willing or able to force the Premiership to manufacture a place for the mass of rugby lovers in Devon and Cornwall (the Twickenham influence extending no further than an academy at Exeter since 2002). Exeter were unable to recruit until promotion was secure, six months after the rest of the Premiership had done their serious signings, and half of yesterday's squad were untried at this level. Moreover, the Premiership shareholding favours long stayers so Exeter receive around £1.2million in central funding, roughly half that of the Gloucesters of this world.
Mauling with the best with one hand tied behind your back is not easy but Exeter, who have plans to raise capacity to 20,000 if they stay up, began with a quick free-kick and sharp passing by Steenson and Phil Dollman to create Foster's try. They picked up penalties at the breakdown, weathered the odd tricky scrum, led 16-5 at half-time and did not buckle when Taylor finished off some tidy recycling in the 53rd minute.
Baxter, 39, was ever present through that third-division success and has been with Exeter for 20 years. His 32-year-old brother, Richie, is in his testimonial season as a No 8 but he was forced by a shoulder injury to sit out this signal day. "It was a fantastic occasion," said Baxter the coach, "but we're not going to celebrate till we know we're here [in the Premiership] next year. If any boys had suggested a lap of honour I'd have thrown them in the changing room myself."
In a large area customarily referred to as a hotbed of the English game the Chiefs and the rest - the Cornish Pirates, Launceston, Plymouth Albion, Redruth, Camborne and so on – rise and fall on the whims of backers and councils supportive or otherwise. Throwing their weight behind Exeter's Devonians may clot many a Cornishman's cream, but it could make a lot of sense.
Exeter Chiefs L Arscott; N Sestaret, P Dollman (M Jess, 45-55), B Rennie (Jess, 55), M Foster; G Steenson, H Thomas (G Cowley, 73); B Sturgess (B Moon, 68), N Clark (S Alcott, 50), H Tui (C Budgen, 56), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (D Gannon, 68), T Johnson, J Phillips (C Slade, 50), J Scaysbrook.
Gloucester O Morgan (T Taylor, 23); J Simpson-Daniel, M Tindall (capt, T Molenaar, 61), E Fuimaono-Sapolu, L Vainikolo; N Robinson, D Lewis (J Pasqualin, 66); N Wood (A Dickinson, 54), S Lawson (O Azam, 68), P Capdevielle, D Attwood, A Brown (W James, 68), P Buxton (A Strokosch, 48), L Narraway, A Qera.
Referee R Debney (Leicestershire).
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