Day of reckoning dawns for Exeter

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The Independent Online

In the normal course of events today's National League One match between Bristol Shoguns and Exeter Chiefs at the Memorial Ground would create barely a ripple of interest outside the two cities.

But this is no ordinary National League game. Much more lies at stake than at first meets the eye. The league leaders Bristol - they head Exeter by just one point - are desperate for a return to the top flight, where they feel they belong. For Exeter, the desire is to join the élite, and their determination can be measured both by the money they are prepared to spend and by the time and effort they are putting into their attempt.

If Bristol win and go on to secure the first division championship that will be that. Up they will go without a murmur from the Premiership, nor a second glance from Twickenham. It will not be quite so straightforward for Exeter, however, because the difference between these two West Country clubs is not simply that solitary point. For all that Exeter have invested bucketloads of money, £15m to date, on their new purpose-built stadium at Sandy Park just off the M5 at Junction 30, which will be ready for the start of the 2006-07 season, it may all count for nothing should they to finish top.

The suspicion is that were they to win the title then the top dogs would howl their disapproval. To this end, in order to break into the Premiership Exeter have been made to jump the hurdles of the entry criteria as laid down by England Rugby Ltd, the body set up to represent jointly the interests of the Premiership clubs and the Rugby Football Union, and they may yet be forced to go through hoops as well. The problem is that Exeter's stadium will not be ready for 17 months, so they had to nominate an alternative, coming up with Exeter City's St James Park football ground.

A fortnight ago ERL carried out an audit of Exeter's facilities and finances. Their findings indicate that in the event of promotion, Exeter would have to spend in the region of £100,000 to improve facilities at St James, including building new dressing rooms and showers and installing seating for another hundred or so spectators. They would have primacy of tenure because the City Council, who own the ground, have guaranteed it, so televised matches could be switched at the last minute to fulfil the requirements of the broadcasting contract. But they would also have to invest, albeit temporarily, in their present County Ground, to ensure that in the event of a freeze or a flood they could use it as a fall-back.

And even if they did comply with everything the fear in Devon is that another obstacle would be placed in their path. But they are as determined off the pitch as on it, where they have an unenviable run-in. If all Bristol have to do is to win today to gain that vital edge, then that "all" promises to be everything that Exeter can put in their way.

Remaining fixtures: Bristol: Exeter (h); Rotherham (a); Orrell (h); Bedford (a); Otley (a). Exeter: Bristol (a); Sedgley Park (h); Coventry (a); Pertemps Bees (h); Rotherham (a).