From underdogs to high achievers: How Exeter earnt rivals' respect

The Chiefs have beaten Gloucester, scared Leicester, and start as favourites against Newcastle. How? Chris Hewett finds out.
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"If there is anything I regret," says Rob Baxter, whose regrets should surely be too few to mention at this wildly exciting stage of proceedings, "it must be that I never played in front of a really big, sell-out Exeter crowd. A full house would have meant the world to me." Like his father before him, he made hundreds of appearances in his hometown pack, all of them of a piece: stern, rugged and grimly industrious in the no-nonsense tradition of rugby in the far South-west of the country. His younger brother Richie is still at it, or will be when he gets himself fit, and Baxter Major is a touch envious. "He's almost ready, and when he finally tastes Premiership rugby, he'll love it."

Happily, there are other things to concern Baxter at Sandy Park (the cleverly designed, spick-and-span stadium a drop-goal's distance west of the M5): namely, navigating the Devonians through their first season in top-flight rugby in his role as head coach. As starts go, it has been "B of the Bang" stuff: an opening-day victory over Gloucester, which precious few pundits anticipated, and a glorious week-two assault on Leicester at Welford Road, which no one thought possible, let alone likely. While Exeter were undone at the last knockings, they scored three tries from distance – Toulouse themselves would happily have settled for two – and left the champions feeling grateful for some deeply sympathetic refereeing. So much for the "thank you and goodnight" view of the newcomers' prospects.

This afternoon, Exeter find themselves in uncharted territory once again. Newcastle, the visitors, are not exactly renowned for their strength up front, still less for the ability to travel well. The presumption at the start of the campaign was that Exeter would have to win this one if they were to stand a snowball's chance in hell of staying up. Now, the presumption is that they will win, which is a different thing altogether. Unsurprisingly, Baxter is wary.

"This is the first time we've gone into a Premiership match with a weight of expectation," he acknowledges. "We weren't quite in a 'nothing to lose' frame of mind against Gloucester or Leicester. We were stronger and more confident than that. But this is another kind of test, definitely. I think our opponents in the first two games felt they could play in a certain way – a way they perhaps wouldn't have countenanced had they been up against each other – and still beat us. When that didn't work for them, they had to adjust. Newcastle will come down here with a different mindset and it will be interesting to see how we deal with it. We've delivered two highly emotional performances. Now, we have to be very clear about what we're doing.

"What have I learnt from the opening fortnight? The big positive is that we've been able to stack up physically against two very serious rugby teams. I said at the start of the season that I was happy with our conditioning, that I thought our level of physicality would be there or thereabouts. But it's all very well saying these things: the truth of it emerges once you actually start playing. I think our attitude is good too. Negatives? We'll have to get on top of our decision making under pressure, but in fairness, that's bound to take some time. It's a bit much to expect us to come to this level of rugby with everything sorted."

Baxter is not quite a one-club man, contrary to popular belief: as an ambitious 20-year-old, he spent a season at Gloucester. "It didn't really work for me: I went at the wrong time, basically, although it toughened me up a bit," he recalls. But to all intents and purposes, he is the very epitome of Exeter Rugby Man. A farmer's son whose family still work the land on the edge of town, he joined up as a colt, won England age-group honours and played for the Barbarians, although the county game, considered by the traditionalists to be the life-blood of the sport in Devon, held little attraction for him. The club was the be-all and end-all, and he captained them for a decade before moving into full-time coaching in 2005.

For a while, he worked under Pete Drewett, who had coached the England Under-21 side, and the two of them positioned the club for a meaningful shot at promotion. Drewett's abrupt departure, two days after painful defeat by Moseley in March of last year – his return to rugby as team manager of England Students was announced this week – landed Baxter in the boss-man's chair, and he duly secured the prize in his first full season at the controls.

"When changes happen in sport, they tend to happen quickly," he says. "I wasn't party to the decision making surrounding Pete's departure and I've never been 100 per cent sure why things turned out the way they did. It seemed a bit harsh on the face of it, but there were people at the club who wanted Premiership rugby and I guess Pete was a victim of that desire. I wasn't put under any particular pressure to take us up immediately, funnily enough, but a number of things went in our favour and we found ourselves in a good place to make it happen."

One favourable turn of events was the Rugby Football Union's much-criticised restructuring of the second-tier Championship, under which the regular season was supplemented by an eight-team, round-robin play-off arrangement that amounted to a whole new tournament. "Whether people liked it or not, the new system definitely helped us," Baxter admits. "We knew we wouldn't see our promotion chances blown away by Christmas and we knew we couldn't be blown out of the play-offs on the back of one bad game. Bristol, looking to go straight back up after relegation, were a major threat, but they had financial issues and were vulnerable. It all played into our hands."

All true enough, but Baxter is selling himself short. He managed the season brilliantly: having seen the team win 13 straight, he effectively sacrificed a couple of matches by reconditioning his players in the gym over Christmas, figuring it would give them a clear advantage come play-off time. So it proved. "Some people insist we'd have been good enough to go up under the old league system," he says. "Maybe, maybe not. The point was, we had to be absolutely right in April and May, when most players are pretty tired. When we reached the final against Bristol, there was definitely an air of 'this is our time' in the dressing room."

The flip side of the new-fangled Championship format was that Exeter were in no position to recruit heavily during the summer, and this led many observers to dismiss their chances of survival out of hand. Yet Baxter took, and continues to take, a phlegmatic approach to the unfairnesses and injustices of top-flight rugby. "There are teams like Bristol and Leeds who have bounced between the two divisions – promotion one year, relegation a couple of years later – and suffered as a result, although Leeds seem to be making good progress now," he says. "Down here, there's none of that baggage and none of the fear.

"When people see us train, they see how happy we are in each other's company. Enjoyment is massively important to us. Right from the moment I started coaching, I knew I wanted to do it at Premiership level. But I also know there's no point bothering if there's no fun attached to it. Don't get me wrong: I don't want my players saying to themselves: 'I've made it into the Premiership! Thank God! I can die happy!' As I keep telling them, there's more to it than that. A lot of them may not be particularly well-known, but if they approach things in the right way, they'll find all sorts of doors opening for them. But equally, I don't want them to lose what they have.

"It's certainly the way I intend to operate. It's been a hectic start to our lives as Premiership rugby people, but when I have a quiet moment or two to myself and sit down with a cup of coffee, I think: 'Here I am, living the dream.' And when I'm out there on the pitch in training, with the sun shining down on this wonderful new stadium of ours and the players having a laugh and a joke... well, I'd have to be a pretty miserable sort not to think myself lucky, wouldn't I?"