In 1996 the Devon club were competing down in the fourth tier of English rugby. Now 21 years later they’ve become the Champions of England after beating Wasps in an enthralling final.
Exeter Chief’s head coach Rob Baxter refused to call this a fairy-tale story. Instead he described it as the end of a ‘very long journey.’ Having been associated with the club for over 20 years, you could imagine the jubilation he felt when the final whistle blew at Twickenham and his side had completed their quest to become a real force in the domestic game.
The Devon outfit have been on a steady upward trajectory since the late 90s, and after moving to their Sandy Park stadium in 2006, people were beginning to take notice. They won promotion to the Premiership in 2010 after beating Bristol in a two-legged play-off, before winning the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2014 (their first ever major trophy).
But not everything has been plain sailing for Baxter’s side.
In 2016 they were beaten in the Premiership final by Saracens- a defeat that saw the team crash back down to earth with a heavy bump. That loss seemed to still be on the player’s minds at the beginning of last season, as they lost four of their opening six games in the league and were thrashed at home by Clermont in the European Champions Cup.
But the team dug deep, irradiated their problems, found their inner belief, and were rightfully crowned champions after a 17-game unbeaten run in the league that stretched back to October 2016 (equalling the unbeaten record set by Leicester Tigers in 1999-2000).
Two of the most influential players during that 23-20 win over Wasps in May were Gareth Steenson and Phil Dollman. Dubbed ‘the originals’ by the fans, Steenson had kicked 24 points in the game that saw Exeter promoted from the Championship seven years ago. It was therefore only fitting that once again the fly-half that was at the centre of the action, kicking the winning points in extra-time to send the Chiefs into ecstasy.
Dollman had also contributed for Exeter, scoring with a try before being forced off with injury.
Winger Jack Nowell, who has 32 caps for England, finished in the corner for Exeter’s first try of the game and the Chiefs found themselves 14-3 up before a Wasps fight back made it 17-20 with minutes remaining.
Ice-cool Steenson levelled it up with his reliable boot, before the 33-year old scored the winning points with just three extra-time minutes remaining.
Baxter admitted that this maiden title has now got to be a starting block for the team – they look to improve even further – with the next objective for the Devon club being to mount a serious challenge in European competition.
Going into 2017-18 as champions unearthed new challenges and pressure for the Chiefs, but they have all seemed to have taken it in their stride.
10 games into the season and Exeter sit pretty at the top of the Premiership table, with an eight-point cushion over second-placed Gloucester.
They also sit top of their pool in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and second in their European Champions Cup group behind Leinster.
2018 could potentially be an ever greater year for the Exeter, as they look to begin to stake a claim as one of the best domestic sides in the northern hemisphere, a label that would truly complete their fairy-tale rise to the top.