Since winning promotion to the Premiership, on a damp late May evening at Bristol’s Memorial Ground, nine years ago, Exeter Chiefs have grown accustomed to non-stop success.
Establishing themselves as a Premiership side by right was something that came almost instantly and by 2016, they had reached the Twickenham play-off final. A year late, amidst further history laden scenes, Gareth Steenson, who kicked 24 points to propel Exeter into the top flight after defeating Bristol, etched his name further into Sandy Park folklore with the winning kick as the Chiefs edged out Wasps at Headquarters to become English rugby kings.
Since that ultimate zenith moment, Exeter have once again contested the Premiership final, although on both occasions, Saracens pipped them to glory, whilst any kind of significant impact in Europe is still very much on the horizon. Another facet of rugby which the Chiefs were still to embrace was the women’s game, although all that changed this week with the announcement Exeter are bidding for a franchise to play in the women’s Premiership competition for 2020-21. With significant financial backing from owner Tony Rowe, help from Director of Rugby Rob Baxter and the appointment of former England stars Susie Appleby and Amy Garnett as coaches, the smart money would be on this latest venture being a success too.
After the announcement was made, Baxter, a man very much central to the Chiefs’ rise, spoke to The Independent about how he feels the new women’s entity will replicate the success of what is now their male counterparts. He said: “What is really exciting about this is it feels like were going to be part of another journey, to really develop something in the region that means something. “The single best thing about getting into the Premiership was that it genuinely then meant that young men who joined our academies, who have the ambition of coming and playing within the area, within the region; their family and friends were able to come and watch them. “The opportunity was there for top flight Premiership and European Cup rugby and to potentially become internationals as well. You share the dream really when you’re a Director of Rugby or a head coach and I’ve been very fortunate to see lads come through the academy and watch them as they come into Sandy Park at 13. I’ve seen some of them play international rugby and some of them playing with the British Lions and theres nothing more fulfilling then that. And thats what I would love to see with our women’s team as well.”
Baxter revealed that he has been integral to the whole selection process and establishment of the team, whilst waxing lyrical about the coaching credentials of both Garnett and Appleby and drawing comparisons between the newly appointed duo and his own backroom staff. “I read all of the CV’s before we made our shortlists and sat in on the interviews too. Susie Appleby and Amy Garnett were hugely impressive and they very much complement each other both in their individual skill sets, and what they can bring in both as a head coach and an assistant coach. “I’ve seen that in my coaching set-up, to have Ali Hepher and Ricky Pellow here, we have a Heineken Cup winning fly half and a Premiership scrum half. The individual skills they can bring to certain positions as well as their overall knowledge of the game is fantastic.
“Initially, I was a forwards coach and now we’ve got Rob Hunter here who is a Premiership forward and all the time your trying to develop a skill set for your coaching staff which can complement each other. “If you look at Amy, we’ve got a hooker which is a massive skill position in itself, and she obviously knows about front row play which is a huge skill position and forward play in general. Susie was a half back and a backs coach so there’s a huge complimentary angle there and of course, Susie’s got huge knowledge on setting a Tyrell’s Premiership side up from scratch and those kind of skills you just can’t buy.”
Appleby has been instrumental in establishing a women’s side at Gloucester-Hartpury as Baxter eluded too and she will remain in her current role until January 2020. With this in mind, Baxter defiantly spoke of Exeter not trying to replicate the formula that others have used and also remarked upon the fact that if the Chiefs didn’t get it right, they would be paying ‘lip service’ to the women’s game. “I don’t think we should go and use somebody else’s model,” he remarked. It feels right for us that we make some positive steps towards creating a women’s team here. We like talking about being a family club and an inclusive club, but actually, unless we really work hard to establish a women side, were not paying much more then lip service. “There feels like there is real enthusiasm around it, and the enthusiasm from the two coaches to get stuck in and get on with things. You look at the quality of the Exeter University side, you look at the enthusiasm at Exeter college with the women who are playing there, and I think you start to see that this is the right time.
“Were not in a huge rush to start talking about winning Premierships and titles, but we are in a rush to make it look like we care and there we’ve got a successful set-up here.” Despite his ongoing role as Chiefs’ playing supremo, Baxter finished by reiterating his support for the women’s team at Exeter with ‘genuine enthusiasm’. “I would like to think that I will be as hands on as much as the women need me to be,” he remarked. “I would like to think I’m there if they need any help or any advice. I’m also very aware that they’re their own people and they are successful in what they’ve done and its not really for me to interfere. “I think the biggest help I can give them is right now at the start and with some genuine enthusiasm, is to really help them make a genuine go of it. I will be striving to link them to the right people and making sure they feel wanted and feel important and provide them with the things they need to get things of the ground.”