TWICKENHAM, London — The watershed moment in Exeter Chiefs’ season came after their 35-8 defeat to Clermont Auvergne back on Oct. 16.
The coaches were fed up, and laid it out pretty bluntly to the players. Those players, who had failed in the Aviva Premiership final the previous year, took it on the chin and put together the season-defining run of form which ultimately led them to glory against Wasps on Saturday.
“We were patting ourselves on the back in preseason at how well we did, and I think we rolled into the season,” match-winner Gareth Steenson said. “We did sit down after Clermont after a hiding at home and said this season is going to peter out for us if we don’t get ourselves together.
After the most gruelling of seasons, Exeter Chiefs dug deep to beat Wasps 23-20 after extra time and become the Aviva Premiership champions for the first time in their history.
Rob Baxter wiped away the tears of Exeter’s extra time Premiership final victory and challenged his Chiefs to turn one title into a dynasty.
“After the final last year, we had a taste for it. We had a few harsh words and we grafted it out. We didn’t change anything drastically but we got ourselves into a good run of form.”
Steenson has had pressure kicks before. He was the man who steered Exeter into the Premiership back in 2010 with 24 points against Bristol in the Championship playoff final. Seven years on, as he stood facing the posts in the 78th minute of this epic Premiership final with a chance to force extra time, his memory drifted back but then came the processes.
“The kicks in the Championship final were pretty big as well. I said a prayer to my old man upstairs and he helped me with the last one.”
Steenson has been through it all with Exeter. He has been one of the driving forces behind the club on this astonishing journey from the Championship to the champions of England. He, in many ways, personifies Exeter; a man who has slipped away from international recognition, isn’t a superstar but is one hell of a player with unrivalled drive and character.
Therein lies the secret of Exeter’s rise from the Championship to being at the top of the pedastool. There’s a never-say-die attitude about this bunch and even back in those old days of playing in tiny stadiums, it was there that this winning culture was established.
“When I joined the club [in 2009], the vision was there, and it was a place that was going to go forward, it was just a question of when. We installed some values in the club in the Championship and I bought into that. It went from there and thankfully we’re sitting here for days like today.
“But what has stayed the same is the fight — it’s always been there — [is] the culture of the club, the guys that got us promoted seven years ago and we’ve added quality in the squad.
“We’ve only got better. There’s guys who’ve been through it all and we’ve added bits of quality to it. We’ve got guys like Parling and Waldrom who are proven winners and they’ve won in this environment before. We’ve got ourselves in that place now and it’s a great feeling.”
Chiefs boss Rob Baxter has served as a player and captain as well as director of rugby at Exeter. Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Steenson’s thoughts turned to those who are no longer at the club, or those behind the scenes who have been the lifeblood of the Chiefs. The players, in that watershed meeting after the Clermont match where they had won just three of their first six matches in the Premiership, pulled together and the culture drove them to Twickenham.
Overseeing their journey has been Rob Baxter, who was forwards coach when Steenson joined but now presides over the playing side. He is dyed-in-the-wool Exeter, and lives and breathes Devon.
Back in October when he challenged his players to re-find their own form after a sub-par start to the season, he trusted them to respond. The uncharted waters of the previous season’s final had thrown them, but the belief in the group and their values had stayed the same.
Perhaps that was going through his mind when the tears flowed at the full-time whistle. “It just happened. The wife and family were here and they have probably taken the brunt of what we go through day by day,” Baxter said.
“For a long time at Exeter things have not gone our way and we have had to work hard. Every one of the players have played their part over the years into building us into the side we have. A lot of players who have been massively emotionally involved in this club are not here. I feel a lot for them and the things we have gone through.
“It does feel like a long journey. The players have reaped the rewards today.”
But there is no danger of Exeter revelling in success for too long. Baxter will not let them repeat the errors they made at the start of the season. It’s just not the Chiefs way, instead they will be ready to fight.
“As great as today is, it cannot be the defining thing about Exeter,” Baxter said. “We will enjoy today to the max but the truth is we need to put a group of players together in this close season who are going to turn around and say ‘I am going to do something about the fact that we are Premiership champions — I am going to do something about that to make sure it stays that way’.”
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