Ever since gaining promotion from the Championship in 2010, the Exeter Chiefs have pioneered an exciting, attacking brand of rugby and haven’t looked like returning to the second tier since. Under the control of the masterful, yet decidedly understated, Rob Baxter, the team have progressed from an eighth-place finish in their first season to runners-up last year, losing 28-20 to Saracens at Twickenham. They have continued in the same vein this season. Although their European performances against Clermont and Bordeaux were disappointing, they have scored the second highest number of tries in the league and have reached the final of the Anglo-Welsh Cup having dispatched Harlequins with relative ease on Sunday.
The key to Exeter’s success has been the ability to retain and bolster already strong squads, adding Premiership experience to give the Chiefs the edge that takes them beyond mid-table. Baxter has been particularly canny in his signings from the Leicester Tigers; Thomas Waldrom, Julian Salvi and Geoff Parling all joining from the East Midlands club. Add in a few local talents (Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Jack Yeandle) and a handful of experienced internationals (Lachie Turner, Dave Dennis, Moray Low) and Exeter have an extremely competitive team. Most pleasingly this season has been the transition of academy prospects into full professionals when the need has arisen. Exeter have always believed in giving youth players time to prove themselves and with the injuries at scrum-half sustained by Will Chudley, Dave Lewis, Niko Matawalu and Haydn Thomas, opportunities have been presented to Jack Maunder and Stuart Townsend. The latter’s box-kicking and instinctiveness in attacking positions is particularly impressive for one so young, but whilst at the helm he has steered Exeter to victories against Leicester and Harlequins. With Dave Lewis leaving for Harlequins at the end of the season and Matawalu’s time at Exeter likely to be curtailed due to off-field issues, it is reassuring that Exeter have back-up in depth.
Apart from the injuries at half-back though, Exeter have been relatively fortunate with the availability of their players. This is in part due to the lack of players called up for international duty during the autumn and winter windows. During this year’s Six Nations for example, only Michele Campagnaro, Jack Nowell, Tomas Francis and Slade have been called up. That has left the core of the squad intact, allowing Exeter to take advantage of their rivals’ relative weakness. Whether this will change in the immediate future is doubtful, although Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ollie Devoto may fight their way back into the England squad in the coming years.
The Chiefs have also been highly successful in resigning large swathes of their playing squad with no fewer than eleven players having signed new deals in recent months. Of those, convincing Don Armand, Julian Salvi, Phil Dollman and Michele Campagnaro to sign on the dotted line is particularly important for Exeter’s future prospects. Armand has been a man mountain since joining Exeter in 2013, becoming an integral part of a dominant back-row with Salvi and Waldrom. Campagnaro hasn’t had a huge amount of game time since signing from Treviso two years ago but is an undoubted talent and will likely become a regular when the club’s other centre options move on. I also believe Dollman to be one of the most under-rated players in the league with his positioning, kicking and anticipation akin to that of New Zealand’s Ben Smith. Retaining him with others likely calling is a big plus.
So far only two players have announced their leaving Exeter ahead of next season with Damien Welch moving to the Cardiff Blues and Dave Lewis to Quins. In their place, Baxter has signed Toby Salmon, Tom O’Flaherty and Matt Kvesic. It will be interesting to see if Kvesic can recapture the form that took him to the edge of the England squad a few years ago. Regardless, Exeter seem to have their recruitment comfortably in hand.