Exeter the club where semi-pro means no half measures

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The Independent Online

To Leicester they must go, in the cup draw from hell, but Exeter are looking on the bright side. As one of the National League clubs jostling for scraps from the high table of the Zurich Premiership, it is a familiar position.

Exeter are currently the best club in the not insignificant rugby hotbed of Devon and Cornwall, but it is another matter to beat the best club in, well, the world. "Leicester can field an entire pack of England forwards, and Josh Kronfeld on top," said Ian Bremner, Exeter's director of rugby. "My first priority is to make sure we come back intact."

Even as the third-placed team in National One, where they beat the leaders, Worcester, 21-10 yesterday, Exeter have next to no chance of doing next week to Leicester what Wycombe did to the city's footballers in the FA Cup last season. Union's cup has never overflowed with upsets.

Still, though, the sponsors come. Last Thursday, at roughly half past the 11th hour, the 31-year-old knock-out tournament was rebranded as the Powergen Cup, for an undisclosed fee. A successor to Tetley's – who were paying £1 million a year – took a while to come forward, with the crowded club calendar placing a question mark over the competition, but the top sides are now committed until at least 2007. A Twickenham crowd of 71,000 for last February's thrilling final between Newcastle and Harlequins was a nudge in the right direction, and the BBC have the rights to live matches for three years from next season.

Exeter went in for a spot of rebranding themselves a couple of years back, adding a dash of Cambridge blue to their traditional all-black kit (in honour of the New Zealanders who played Devon off the park at the County Ground in 1905) and calling themselves, for no immediately apparent reason, the Chiefs. Perhaps something more appropriate, like the Exeter Sailors, would have struck the wrong note.

Bremner, a plain-speaking Ulsterman, is in his fourth year in Devon after stints at London Irish and Cardiff. He has steered the Chiefs, successively, to fifth, fourth and third in the next rung down from rugby's top flight. While Premiership clubs look forward to central funding of £4m each next season, the National One sides have had theirs trimmed to less than £200,000. The squad mixes a large local contingent with a sprinkling of talented outsiders including Blair Foote, a flanker from New Zealand, and the club's solitary full-time player, the Australian outside-half Chris Malone.

"We've got a strong Cornish connection," Bremner said. "Four players make a 200-mile round trip to training three times a week, and Robin Cowling, the ex-England international, is one of the coaches. Our captain, Rob Baxter, is approaching 200 games for the club. He combines playing with farming, and the great thing is that staying with his local club has allowed him to fulfil most of his rugby ambitions."

Among the Cornish quartet are Andy Reed, once of Bath, Wasps and Scotland, and Ian Sanders, the former Bath and Gloucester scrum-half. Eight players are on scholarships at Exeter University, who won last season's Busa final, and Bremner is pushing for the England Rugby Academy licence for the south-west.

This is semi-professionalism in action. The club own their ground, and a new grandstand as part of a leisure development is on the way. With a bit of work, Exeter would satisfy the Premiership's new entry criteria. But would they be ready for promotion? "The gap between National One and the Premiership is ever increasing," said Bremner. "Promotion has never been set as a goal."

What's more, there is a gap to the division's big spenders Worcester and Rotherham. "Worcester have three fly- halves whose combined wages add up to more than 50 per cent of our wage bill," said Bremner. "Our turnover is about £750,000. Our sponsors, South West Communications, are generous, but another £100,000 winging through the door would make an impact. Not that it's going to."

A paltry four of the cup's 112-club entry from outside the Premiership are joined at this stage by the élite 12, making the already slim chances of a shock result positively wafer-like. Orrell, newly backed by Dave Whelan's cash, will field the rugby league international Gary Connolly against Leeds. And Rotherham, smarting from a singularly unsuccessful season in the Premiership, will want to put on a good show at Saracens.

"We're not saying those silly phrases about going to enjoy the day," said Bremner. "But I'm determined that we will make a positive contribution to the match. We're both members' clubs, and we want to learn from Leicester as much as possible."

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