Initially formed as early as 1871, the first recorded match of Exeter Rugby Club was against the training college (latterly St Luke’s) on October 26, 1873 – playing in a field belonging to Mr Morrison and then in the Militia Field behind the barracks.
Subsequently, the club went to the Cricket Field at St Thomas (the former County Ground) then Matford only to return to the County Ground, where they would stay until the culmination of the 2005/06 season.
Throughout its many years of existence, Exeter Rugby Club has not only helped forge the careers of many fine individuals players, some of whom have gone on to achieve international honours, but its long-lasting traditions of sportsmanship, honour and team work have continued to move throughout the many years.
To list the efforts of players throughout the decades would surely be an endless task, but the way the Devon club has moved with the times – now featuring amongst English and European Rugby’s elite teams – is something to be truly cherished.
The progression made, particularly over the past 20 years is certainly notable, and having moved away from their former base at the County Ground, Exeter Rugby Club are now regularly playing host to crowds of almost 11,000 spectators.
Much of the transformation of Exeter Rugby Club has happened since the English rugby scene turned professional in the late 1990s. At this time a limited company structure was created to run all of the club’s affairs through a board of seven directors, chaired by local businessman Tony Rowe (pictured).
It was an inspired move as the direction of the new board not only saw Exeter Rugby Club rise on the field, but off it as well there was also much to promote as individuals, businesses and key sponsors came together to help provide financial backing to the playing squad.
Even now, however, it remains a members’ club with the company shares held by four trustees – John Lockyer, Bob Staddon, Paul Derbyshire and Ian Pugsley – who act on the sole wishes of the 700-strong membership.
The need, though, to grow the club and the business has advanced at some pace and having rebranded the club in 1999 to that of the Exeter Chiefs, Devon’s finest have made significant progress.
Former Director of Rugby, Ian Bremner, oversaw the early years of the semi-professional era at the County Ground when the Chiefs would regularly challenge for the top division, only to be pipped by sides such as Leeds Tykes, Rotherham and Worcester.
The Irishman’s input was hugely beneficial and although his time in charge eventually came to an end in 2006, the Chiefs were already moving in the right direction with a new stadium on the outskirts of the city approved and a former player, Pete Drewett, set to take charge of a new-look and full-time squad.
Former England Under-20s team manager Pete Drewett took charge in 2006, the same year as the club moved into their new, state-of-the-art stadium at Sandy Park. Ironically, they opened up at their new home with a 13-13 draw against Coventry, the opponents they faced in their final outing at the old County Ground.
Drewett’s first year ended with the Chiefs finishing fourth in the standings, but improvements followed as the Chiefs recorded back-to-back second place finishes. The trouble was, however, that in both those years they came behind former top flight clubs Northampton Saints and Leeds in the race to join the Premiership.
The need to get into the promised land of the Premiership prove too much for Drewett, who was relieved of his duties – along with fellow coach Paul Larkin – in March 2009 following Exeter’s 32-24 defeat at Moseley.
Former England international Robin Cowling (pictured) assumed control of on-field matters, along with former players Bob Staddon and Rob Baxter for the remainder of the season, before Baxter was then installed as Head Coach for the 2009/10 season.
Immediately, Baxter recruited the services of former Northampton and England fly-half Ali Hepher as his assistant, whilst another former Exeter player, Ricky Pellow, was drafted in as skills coach. Together the group gelled instantly in the new-look RFU Championship, which had taken over from the old National League One.
Although the Chiefs had finished the normal season as runners-up to near neighbours Bristol, the two would subsequently progress through the latter stages to the first-ever Play-Off final, the victors of whom would advance into the Premiership.
After a tight first leg and in front of a record crowd at Sandy Park, the Chiefs held a narrow 9-6 lead thanks to three penalties from Irishman Gareth Steenson.
With pundits giving the Chiefs little hope ahead of the second leg, the tactical nous of Baxter and his trusty lieutenants came to the fore when, on a cold and wet night at the Memorial Stadium, they crushed their more established rivals 29-10 thanks to a last-minute try from Simon Alcott and the boot of Steenson.
As the champagne flowed, the dream of Premiership Rugby had been realised and the hard work was just about to begin for Baxter, his staff and his players – many of whom had never experienced life in the top division before.
Given little hope of survival by anyone outside the confines of Sandy Park, the Chiefs marked their introduction to life another run up the ladder by producing a stunning opening day win over Gloucester.
It was the first of 10 league wins the Chiefs would produce during the season as Baxter’s newcomers – who would eventually finish in eighth place – also claimed the prized scalps of established sides such as Newcastle Falcons, Saracens, Leeds, Harlequins, London Wasps, Sale Sharks and Northampton Saints.
Exeter’s first foray into Europe also brought rewards with victories over Bourgoin and Newcastle, although Montpellier would triumph in both encounters.
Having exceeded expectations in their debut year, again there was much talk ahead of the new season as to whether the Chiefs could match their achievements. Again some wise recruitment during the off season from Baxter paid dividends as the new stock – coupled with the ever-improving efforts of much of his Championship-winning squad – saw the club advance yet further.
Come the end of another exciting year, the Chiefs had not only collected 12 Premiership wins – including memorable wins on the road against Gloucester and Worcester Warriors – but their fifth place finish had also secured themselves a place amongst Europe’s top clubs in the Heineken Cup.
The Chiefs were now entering into new and unchartered waters as they prepared for the 2012/13 season, where not only the might of the Premiership awaited them, but also Europe where they were paired against heavyweights sides Leinster, Clermont Auvergne and Scarlets.
Although it would prove a tough baptism amongst Europe’s elite clubs, the Chiefs proved on more than one occasion that they were capable of mixing it with the very best, including picking up home and away victories over the Scarlets, as well as running defending champions Leinster to within a score in both fixtures.
Domestically, the Chiefs continued to prosper within the Premiership where they were again able to secure another top six finish, which included an impressive last-day victory over Gloucester at Sandy Park.
The 2013/14 season will forever be etched into the memories of Exeter supporters as this was the campaign in which the Chiefs finally secured their first piece of major silverware. Victory on home soil against a strong Northampton Saints side saw Rob Baxter’s men lift the LV= Cup for the first time thanks to a 15-9 victory.
Skipper Dean Mumm and Chris Whitehead claimed the all important tries, whilst rising fly-half Henry Slade slotted the other five points with a penalty and a conversion. Sadly, that would prove to be Whitehead’s final game in club colours as he was one of three players – Tom Hayes and James Hanks the others – who would be forced to retire prematurely through the course of the season due to injury.
All three had indeed played their part in the club’s recent rise to success and the loss of the trio was felt on and off the field as the Chiefs ended the Premiership campaign in eighth place. It meant they missed out on qualification for the new-look top tier of European Rugby, but head coach Baxter admitted the strain of trying to compete on three fronts had ultimately taken it’s toll on his ever-improving squad.
Highlights of the year included a full England debut for Jack Nowell, who together with Tom Johnson helped their country to finish runners-up in the Six Nations. Sam Hill, Dave Ewers, Dave Lewis and Slade would all go on to claim representative honours with England during the course of the season, whilst young flanker Joel Conlon was able to claim his second Junior World Championship medal as he helped England Under-20s defend their title with victory over South Africa in Auckland.