When the successful Devon-based businessman Tony Rowe first opened his wallet in support of Exeter RFC – "It was 20 years ago when they asked me to be a shirt sponsor and it cost me £4,000," he recalled this week – the fresh-faced kid from the livestock farm on the far side of town was making his way through the junior ranks and dreaming of following his brother, and indeed his father, into the first team, where the cauliflower-faced grown-ups drew their line in the West Country mud and invited visiting teams to cross it if they really considered themselves tough enough. Richard Baxter achieved his goal while still in his teens. Tomorrow, some 400 games later, he will be in touching distance of realising another ambition.
Victory over Northampton before a sell-out audience at Sandy Park will, unless the bonus-point arithmetic gets really complicated, propel Exeter into the Aviva Premiership semi-finals: a significant landmark for any club and a mind-blowing one for a team in only their second season of top-flight rugby. Baxter has no time for exaggeration – he is, after all, a lifelong man of the soil and plans to stay that way – but even he acknowledges the magnitude of the occasion. "We know we have a chance of doing something special," he said, quietly. It may have been the closest he had ever come to grandiloquence.
It is Rowe's hard-headed custodianship as club chairman that has made all this possible. "I'm a businessman and this is a business," he pronounced, keen to distinguish himself from the many rugby investors who have thrown good money after bad down the years. But by the same yardstick, it is the Baxters who have done more than anyone to turn possibility into hard fact. Richie, who at 33 will feature in his 350th league game for the club when he starts at No 8 tomorrow, used to play in the pack alongside brother Rob, eight years his elder, and is now coached by him. Between them, the two farmer's sons provide the club with its heartbeat – they are its left and right ventricles.
"The farm? We have 300 acres, over in that direction," said Richard, wafting a long line-out man's arm towards the fields on the far side of the M5. "We have sheep and cattle and, on our day off from rugby, generally a Thursday, it's farm time. We still live there, the both of us, but we're not exactly on top of each other. Do we talk rugby? Of course. But it's important to make sure that life isn't just about rugby and nothing else." Might he follow Rob into coaching when his playing contract expires at the end of next season? "I'm not too sure. I'd like to keep the farm going. Not just for me, but for the family.
"When I first made it into the first team – my debut was up at Fylde back in '97 – I worked all day on the farm and trained at the club in the evenings. Then, when we all started doing weights, I'd go to the gym early in the morning and then do exactly the same as I'd always done." For all he knew, it would stay that way for the duration. Then Rowe set about developing the Sandy Park site with a view to securing Premiership status at some point in the none-too-distant future. "That was a big statement: it was then that I realised there was real potential here," Baxter continued. "There had been a point when I thought I might go somewhere else to move my career on, but when I saw the scale of the ambition, that was it. I got married, started a family and cemented myself here."
The Baxter approach to rugby can be summarised thus: sweat blood, pay attention to detail, concentrate on performing just a little better than last week and don't be spooked by the opposition, however swanky and star-laden they might be, because if the first three things are done correctly, the result will take care of itself. Oh yes, one last thing: enjoy a beer after the game, win or lose. All this fits nicely with Rowe's down-to-earth, steady-as-she-goes style of rugby club management. If Exeter have not spent gazillions on importing All Black midfielders and Springbok back-rowers, it is because neither Rowe nor his head coach have felt it necessary.
"What do I see when I look at Rob? I see an honest man – very honest," the chairman said. "I also see an intelligent, hard-working man, as you would expect him to be, given his background. I like to make this analogy: if I gave Rob a £20 note and sent him down the shop, he'd come back and give me change. Every other coach would come back and ask me for another 20 quid. We're in the Heineken Cup for the first time next season, but there's no increase in Rob's budget on account of us being in Europe. He knows that."
He does indeed. The coach rolled his eyebrows at the first mention of finance, but it was entirely in jest. Rob Baxter has already made some signings for next season – "We're not announcing them just yet," he said – but it will be a very long time, and over Rowe's dead body, before Exeter start splashing the cash like a West Country version of Toulon. They have a couple of Argentines on their books in Gonzalo Camacho and Ignacio Mieres, and very effective they are too, but it is safe to suggest that Juan Martin Hernandez and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe would have fetched a few bob more on the open market. If some coaches are brilliant at buying talent, the elder Baxter has been brilliant at spotting and maximising it. Matt Jess, Haydn Thomas, Tom Hayes, Tom Johnson, Jim Scaysbrook...they may not be household names, but they are the names that count at Sandy Park.
"Thinking about it," the coach said, "I'd like to see us in the Heineken Cup group of death next season. Why would you prefer a soft pool, a pool with one of the Italian teams, when you can go full-on? We want the best teams in Europe coming here; we want to see how they like it playing against us in front of our own crowd. I honestly think that player for player, we're as ambitious as anyone. We all want to be involved in the big games and we're not a club to run away from things. We want more. You saw that when we won at Worcester last week. You don't score two tries in the last few minutes of a tight game because you're satisfied with what you have, do you?
"There may have been a couple of times last year, early in our first Premiership season, when some of us felt a little overawed, but not now. We've moved on from that. One of the big moments this season was going down by three points at home to Bath. We were gutted, not because we'd lost the game but because we hadn't done anything in losing it. That freed us up, I think – really kicked us on. When you look at the teams who win the big matches, the matches with something tangible at stake, they tend to do it by going out and playing. Leicester have won their fair share of titles, but how many semi-finals and finals have they lost by trying to squeeze out a result? We've decided that whatever we do, we'll play rugby."
In preparing his side, he does not bother his head with statistical analysis. "I'm not sure what stats actually tell you," he said. "I like to trust the visuals. I act on what I see with my own eyes." On that basis, does he still see opponents arriving at Sandy Park with the tell-tale look of overconfidence about them? "There are times when I think we're being a little under-regarded," he replied with a soft smile.
Northampton would have to be profoundly thick to take tomorrow's game lightly, to travel south under the impression that they only have to turn up to win. For all their limited experience of elite rugby and for all the iniquities of the Premiership funding system – "I'm still pretty bitter about the fact that we receive only 60 per cent of the money everyone else gets, and that we'll have to be in this league six years before we achieve parity," commented Rowe, unafraid to "ruffle a few feathers" as he put it – Exeter have planned and performed their way into play-off territory, not fluked it.
"We've lost games this season, particularly in a rough spell last autumn, but only once have we failed to earn ourselves a losing bonus point," said the coach. That was against Northampton, as it happened – at Franklin's Gardens in early October, when the West Countrymen went down 33-3. An alarming thought on the eve of the latest biggest game in the club's modern history? Not really. A little over a year ago on home soil, they beat the Midlanders very nearly as convincingly. They know what can be done, and increasingly, their Premiership rivals know they know.
"I'd agree that we have an awful lot to lose in this game," coach Baxter acknowledged, "but equally, we've only just started laying our foundations as a top club." Ultimately, he is more interested in sustainability than in the short-term fix. It must be the farmer in him.