It was Leo Tolstoy – who doesn’t offer appear on the sports pages – who once remarked that the two most powerful warriors are patience and time. Exeter Chiefs have been playing rugby for 146 years but yesterday they finally – memorably – landed the big one. For them patience has been the virtue that defines them best.
Between 2005 and 2010 they contested four Championship play-offs before they banged down the Premiership door with a 29-10 win at Bristol when a certain Gareth Steenson kicked 24 points.
There have been times in the last seven years when the undemonstrative and criminally underrated Steenson has looked like his starting days might be numbered, especially with Henry Slade breathing down his neck, but coach Rob Baxter is a patient man and knows Steenson’s worth.
This season the clever Ulsterman has been nigh on imperious and it was entirely fitting that he administer the coup de grace to yesterday’s wonderfully compelling final.
Much the same can be said about Phil Dollman, below, who was heavily involved that soaking wet night in Bristol. The splendid Dollman is still going strong at the age of 32, so much so that shame faced Welsh selectors have belatedly call him up for this summer’s Pacific tour.
Exeter have never had the money to “buy” success but the need to watch the pennies has been the making of them. They have built slowly and steadily, established base camps along the way, until yesterday the last and final step saw them crest the summit of English rugby.
After winning promotion in 2010 Exeter immediately looked comfortable in the Premiership. I remember one of their early games when an eerily silent Welford Road crowd watched the unheralded visitors run in three high quality tries either side of half-time although the Tigers forward power and nous did eventually see them home. Exeter were not going to be cowed.
But they still had to grow as a team and a club. Baxter – from farming stock, a man of the soil – knew that would take time and there would be fallow years along the way. Young players needed time to develop while older players – some discarded by other clubs or feeling they had not yet fulfilled their potential – were given time to rejuvenate before they flourished gloriously again.
The former were represented yesterday by the likes of Jack Nowell, Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Stuart Townsend, Harry Williams and Henry Slade while for the latter consider the renaissance of Thomas Waldrom, Don Armand, Kai Horstmann, Geoff Parling and Olly Woodburn.
So Exeter continued their remarkable journey, jousting with the big boys but learning from their defeats as well as their victories. They have also profited from their European experience by competing with their eyes open and having the humility to learn from superior teams on the day, not least Clermont who have showed them on a number of occasions what total rugby is all about.
Last season saw the disappointment of losing to Saracens in their first Premiership play-off when they froze for the first half hour before fighting back splendidly to make Saracens really sweat before taking the title. It wasn’t quite their time. Again Exeter needed to be patient.
And they definitely had to stay cool earlier this season when a dodgy start saw them claim just two win in their first seven Premiership games. It was a tense time but Baxter didn’t miss a beat. Sometimes it all goes a bit quiet and low key before a frantic growth spurt and blooming.
Exeter’s form in the second half of the season has been a marvel with their entire squad seemingly reaching career peaks. So much so that no one player ever seems to stand out although they can usually rely on Jack Nowell to produce at least one champagne moment per match.
They headed into the play-off with eight bonus point wins on the bounce under their belts but then had to demonstrate how they had matured as a team against mighty Saracens in a titanic tight semi-final. Exeter had to grind that one out before they delivered the hammer blow at the death with Henry Slade’s touch kick of the decade and a textbook line-out rumble try.
And then yesterday. A year older and wiser it was the Chiefs who made the more composed start before they had to batten down the hatches as Wasps engaged top gear either side of half-time. It was compelling stuff and in their hour of greatest need Exeter demonstrated their inherent virtue. Patience.
No European team retain possession with such ease and comfort and it was a 34-phase play that saw them earn the penalty that reduced the deficit to 20-17. And having finally nicked the lead late in the second half of extra time they played keep ball with textbook composure. It would have been easy to mess up at the finish but Exeter calmly went through another 11 phases as Wasps and huff and puffed before the clock showed full time and they belted the ball into touch. Job done.
Being patient is counter intuitive in a full on physical contact sport like rugby while beyond the field of play, owners, fans and some coaches tend to want success now.
The need to win trophies makes everybody impatient, there is a strong momentum to doing things differently, try new tactics, rush players before they are ready.
You only have to spend five minutes with Baxter, however, to appreciate that he is not a man swayed by immediate emotions. He treats the twin imposters the same and I would strongly advise a small punt on him being the next England coach post RWC2019.
Baxter’s one stroke of luck has been that owner Tony Rowe was cut from the same cloth. Hard-driving and ambitious yes – that is a prerequisite – but Rowe is another man who has always seen the bigger picture.
They and their team have conquered the Premiership and, after drinking Devon dry, they will soon set their sights on Europe. Be in no doubt that one day that trophy will also reside at Sandy Park.
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