How long are the Exeter Chiefs going to be labelled a bogey team? I always thought a bogey team was one that once in a while – and only once in a while – produced a win against all expectations. Well, guess what, the Chiefs are better than that.
They began their first stint in the English game's top flight with a bang, beating a star-laden Gloucester side in front of a positively quivering home crowd. And while this result delivered shockwaves throughout the general rugby public, very few people outside of a 10-mile radius of Sandy Park really expected this mega-win to spark a trend. Well, the doubters were very wrong.
Those who actually watched the Gloucester game, though, will have seen something in the way the Chiefs approached the game that suggestedthis might not be a one-off. This wasn't a win founded on one moment of individual brilliance, nor was it just down to the visitors not getting off the bus. In fact, they were so well drilled, so focused, that I don't think many teams would have turned them over. And this set the tone for what has been an epic start to their season, accentuated most recently by a rare win at Saracens.
Whatever they say, Premiership survival has to be the number one goal of every promoted side. Besides there being more money, exposure and commercial opportunity, this is still sport, and the Premiership is the best arena in which to compete. Inevitably, various factors – natural selection being the primary one – combine to fill the lower divisions with players but all of them, I would guess, would love the chance to turn out in the Premiership every week.
So Exeter's chance came. Or rather it was earned, and they have done what any ambitious group would; they have grabbed it and run with it. Literally. The brand of rugby they play has interested me. Heart and passion will only get you so far, after that it's quality and organisation that is needed. They have quality players who all seem to have a simple, achievable job specification and this in turn reflects the quality of the coaching. There was no huge, Manchester City-style recruitment drive over the summer. Instead, Rob Baxter and Ali Hepher committed to getting the best out of the men already on board (surely the very definition of good coaching). Players like Tom Hayes and Chris Budgen stick to task like few others in the league; coming at you head on at the set-piece, slotting quickly and rigidly into formation in defence and running hard and simple lines in attack. This is not a complex strategydesigned to manipulate the opposition, more a form of confrontation taken from war room to rugby field.
One thing above all threatens a gameplan this direct and "all-in", and that is turning over the ball. Defences often know where the forward runners are coming from and this, you'd think, would give them the advantage. Enter stage Jimmy Scaysbrook. Having played alongside Jimmy for six years at Bath I can tell you first hand, there are few better. Never one to hog the headlines, the casual observer could miss his contribution over the course of a match. But to those in the know – and on the field with him – he has, for a while, been a top-of-the-range openside. Certainly,he enjoys the open spaces and relishesany chance to play the linkman but his true value lies in the tight phases. Not a huge specimen by today's standards, he pilfers more ball than ought to be his right and, crucially, secures an awful lot of good ruck ball for his scrum-half to play with.
So Exeter have a platform and seem more than sufficiently adept at keeping the ball and this leads to one of two things: points or penalties. In the final third of the field they have invariably looked composed and threatening – a feat unachieved by many teams in the same division – but should the referee award them a penalty anywhere within a hawk's sight of the poles, up steps Gareth Steenson or, lately, Ryan Davis to reward the efforts of his workers.
Please be sure, my intention is not to label Exeter a dull, predictable outfit. Far from it, though I do want to label them. They are intelligent, well-coached, motivated and in great condition. And now, as they look a long way south to find struggling Leeds, they are a side relieved of a huge dollop of pressure. So for how long will they be referred to as a potential banana skin for the "proper" teams? I officially declare their bedding-in period over. The Chiefs are now a force, and the new challenge facing us all is to become their bogey team.