All hail the Chiefs: Devon upstarts aim to take another scalp in a season of shocks

All hail the Chiefs: Devon upstarts aim to take another scalp in a season of shocks

|

UPDATED:

20:12 GMT, 30 March 2012

There was heavy demand for sun cream and bottled water at Sandy Park this week.

There was barely a cloud to be seen but Exeter's head coach, Rob Baxter, spied one – metaphorically speaking.

Sportsmail's arrival in Devon was the problem.

'You'll jinx it,' he joked, in
reference to a sensational season which sees the Chiefs still fighting
on two fronts: domestically and in Europe.

Victory: Exeter cemented their play-off ambitions with a dramatic victory at Gloucester last week

Victory: Exeter cemented their play-off ambitions with a dramatic victory at Gloucester last week

It could equally have been a reference to the club's general health and growth – with an increasingly successful team backed up by financial stability, development plans and strong support.

But Baxter was wary of the recognition, adding: 'As a coach, you become suspicious if people start saying nice things, that's when it can all go wrong.'

He may prefer to remain beneath the radar, but that is becoming difficult for Exeter. Last week they won at Gloucester to consolidate their fifth place in the Aviva Premiership table.

Victory over London Irish at home today could lift them into the play-off zone if Northampton falter at Bath.

Next week, Baxter takes his side to Paris for an Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final against Stade Francais, and the possibility of seizing another prized scalp to add to a growing collection.

This season the Chiefs have done the double over Leicester and Wasps to confirm their emergence as a major force.

Towering above his rivals: Exeter coach Rob Baxter

Towering above his rivals: Exeter
coach Rob Baxter

What confounds those outside the South West is how they have managed it without a roll-call of blue-chip names in their squad.

Starting at the top in the search for an explanation, chief executive Tony Rowe said: 'We've grown an ethos here. I joined the club 20 years ago as a sponsor and it had an old-fashioned, family feel about the place. That still exists today.

'Rob (Baxter) has been at the club since I've been here. His father was the chairman when I joined so he understands the ethos. It is a big family here. Everyone wants to do their best for the club, they enjoy their work and when it comes to the players, that comes out on the pitch. They play for each other and enjoy playing with each other.

'We've got some former Royal Marines here as fitness coaches and they inject a certain esprit de corps. You don't give up, you never give up. That showed at Gloucester.'

Rowe describes Baxter as 'unique'.

He is the ultimate club stalwart: Fourteen years as a player at Exeter, 10 of them as captain, then the 41-year-old took over as head coach and oversaw promotion to the Premiership in 2010.

In the eyes of many, he is a shoo-in for the Coach of the Year award but he is as wary of acclaim for himself as he is of high praise for his team.

'I can't speak highly enough of the coaching staff and conditioning staff we've got here, and allied with a squad of players who are better than people probably think they are, we've been able to maintain a level of consistency,' he said.

'As coaches we try to show the players that if they work hard and give it a go, we will back them 100 per cent, whatever the result. There aren't egos here, we've got a great set of guys and we talk a lot about maintaining standards.

'We don't expect the players to make a mess in the changing room and if they do, they get told. We don't expect guys who get given hundreds of pieces of kit to turn up in the wrong kit. We don't expect guys who are working for four hours a day to turn up late.'

Exeter have a handful of international players, led by the Argentina pair Gonzalo Camacho and Ignacio Mieres.

International Chief: Gonzalo Camacho adds flair to Exeter

International Chief: Gonzalo Camacho adds flair to Exeter

But the spirit of the club is summed up by the unheralded graft of the likes of Baxter's brother Richard, who will make his 400th appearance on Saturday at No 8 and captain Tommy Hayes – the lower-profile brother of former Ireland prop John Hayes.

Of the English contingent, flanker Tom Johnson has come closest to Test recognition, having played in the non-cap game against the Barbarians at Twickenham last summer and several times for the Saxons.

He accepts the importance of the club's team ethic.

'Down here, everyone fits into the club culture, the coaches haven't brought in celebrities and superstars whom you have to accommodate,' he said.

'It has been very enjoyable, surprising people with how we've done in the Premiership. Even last week when we went to Gloucester I don't think many people gave us a chance but because we've already earned a lot of league points we could go there and play with the shackles off.

Aiming high: Rob Baxter

Aiming high: Rob Baxter

This year we've developed more weapons to our armoury. We're playing a bit wider and starting to off-load more.

'Teams had pegged us as one-dimensional so perhaps that's why we are still surprising them.'

As for where it can all lead, Baxter revealed that he and his squad have allowed themselves to aim high since the new year, knowing that they were safe in the Premiership.

With Northampton still to come to Sandy Park on April 22, he said: 'We're enjoying ourselves. If that means we can make one or two of the teams in the top four look over their shoulder we'll relish that.'

With his sights on the bigger picture, Rowe admitted that a top-six finish for a place in the Heineken Cup next season would be beyond his initial expectations and perhaps even beyond what the club can realistically cope with in the short term.

But in the long term – amid plans for a staged expansion of the ground to increase capacity beyond 20,000 and approval for a new training base just across the M5 – he has grand ambitions, saying: 'We want to be the best club in Europe. That is the target. In time, we will be the best in Europe. I know that. I'm sure of it.'