Not so long ago, this end of the Devon rugby scene regarded Exeter like Cornwall did Devon – eastern posers who should be beaten up whenever met, to remind the world where the West Country’s reputation for rugby really came from.
Plymouth Albion was the nearest thing we had to a team which could bother Bath or Bristol or Gloucester. Exeter sometimes lost to Torquay, Barnstaple and Sidmouth.
Up to the new century, Exeter was a drinking team’s rugby club, the way Robert Kitson tells it in Exe Men: The Extraordinary Rise Of Exeter Chiefs. Anyone from east of Crediton stood out as a foreigner and the gym was boring.
Nostalgics will be pleased to hear that the Chiefs are still second to none at partying on occasion, but clearly a few things had to change.
Kitson’s book, out now at £17.99, tells the story of how it did – starting with the arrival in Devon, from Lancashire, of a farming family called Baxter.
John Baxter, father of the Chiefs‘ famous coach, farmed at Crediton and played and planned with Exeter, gradually influencing the culture, until his sons were ready to fill his shoes. But even then there was still a long way to go.
When Bob Baxter took over playing strategy in 2009, they still lost in Plymouth as usual that Christmas – partly, mind you, because they were all knackered from the gym work the new boss was putting them through in the week.
This book reminds us how remarkable an achievement it has been to get from there to the point where everyone from Penzance to Portishead is basking in the glory of a team which got Devon into the Premiership, stayed there, got to the top of it and then (caw bugger) got a cup for being best in Europe too.
Some of it was down to the Baxters making the right or lucky choices time after time – investors, coaches, players, tactics. But some of it was down to plain grit. They did not have stars like Saracens and Wasps did until they made their own.
Legendary fly-half Gareth Steenson, looking back 10 years, told the author of this book, the Guardian’s rugby writer: “We were all a bunch of misfits. If you looked at our squad, everyone, somewhere along the line, had been let go by somebody. You could run through our entire XV and every single one had been told No at some stage. I think it was the biggest part of our persona for the first five to six years in the Premiership, the fact everyone kept saying we had no chance.“
PS from the book: Steenson’s favourite pre-match track is a recording of Al Pacino as a football team coach in the film Any Given Sunday, which Kitson quotes in full. It includes these lines …
“Life is a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half-second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. In any fight it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s going to win that inch. “