Exeter v Racing 92: The inside story of Exeter’s rise to the Champions Cup final

Champions Cup final: Exeter v Racing 92
Date: Saturday 17 October Kick-off: 16:45 BST Venue: Ashton Gate, Bristol
Coverage: Live radio and text commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Sounds, the BBC Sport app and website.

The journey is the same, but Exeter’s destination is now very different.

Ten years ago, Exeter travelled up the M5 to Bristol for the biggest match in the club’s history.

On a damp May evening, Exeter shocked Bristol to take a place in the Premiership for the first time.

On Saturday, they will return to the city.

Instead of Bristol though, the opposition will be the billionaire-backed all-star squad of Parisian side Racing 92.

Exeter Chiefs won promotion to the Premiership for the first time in their history in 2010 after beating Bristol at the Memorial Stadium

Instead of promotion, they are playing for a coronation.

And instead of a second-tier play-off, the match is a Champions Cup final.

Everything has changed. Or has it?

Because, on the pitch, among the coaching staff, in the stands, plenty of Exeter’s staff and support is the same 10 years on.

Here are five men who have seen the team’s decade-long rise from the inside.

The player – Gareth Steenson

Steenson kicked 24 points in Exeter’s second-leg play-off win over Bristol in 2010. Now 36, the Northern Irishman is in his final season as a player at Sandy Park

“I didn’t think I would see these days. I thought I would be watching from afar.

“When I left home all those years ago, my dream was to go back to Ireland and play for my country and maybe play for Ulster. That was my goal.

“But to come to a club and see the growth and be part of it, I would not sacrifice a minute of it for one or two caps for my country.

  • LISTEN – Gareth Steenson speaks to Rugby Union Weekly

“It would mean the world to me to win on Saturday. If I can be part of a squad that is the first Exeter Chiefs squad to win the Champions Cup and then a week later lift the Premiership title, I would put my cowboy hat on and walk into the sunset.

“Next season, I will be moving into the coaching team as kicking coach, so I won’t be leaving the Chiefs. I think there is so much more to come from this team. I am really excited about the future.”

The coach – Rob Baxter

Baxter’s involvement with Exeter stretches back more than 30 years. He first played for their junior sides as a teenager and has been director of rugby since 2009

“The last 20 odd years has gone by in a blink of an eye.

“It has been a fantastic journey and it feels great, but the important thing is what we do every day, every week, every month. That is what we have got right as a club.

“People talk about me and my involvement but [backs coach] Ali Hepher has been here 11 years, [skills coach] Ricky Pellow has been part of our coaching team for 15 years, [forwards coach] Rob Hunter must have been here seven years, [Defence coach] Julian Salvi has been involved for five years.

“There is a huge group of people who have had massive involvement in everything; people who have put in just as much for the club to continually try to move forward.

“We don’t want to talk about how amazing it is that we have reached the Champions Cup final. We aren’t saying we will go there and give it a go and, whatever happens, it will be a brilliant season.

“We have moved way beyond that.”

The fan – Richard Cresswell

Cresswell, seen here presenting Sam Simmonds with the Supporters’ Player of the Year prize for 2018, started watching Exeter in 2000 and, before this season’s coronavirus restrictions, had seen every one of their European games, home and away.

“I started watching Exeter in 2000 and every year it has ratcheted up a notch with a little extra success.

“Exeter is a club where you can be fairly close to the players and it does feel like a bit of a family.

“Exeter is a smaller place and you can see the players in town. They always stop and say hello, but also make themselves accessible after games, signing autographs and talking to supporters.

“It has become more difficult because they have to warm down properly after games now. In the early days in the Premiership you would see more of them in the bar certainly!

“It’s a pleasure to have watched the likes of Henry Slade and Jack Nowell grow from young lads, fresh from the academy, into England internationals and British and Irish Lions.

“It is great to be in Saturday’s final, I just wish I was there too.

“But I’m sure, if we all have our windows open in Exeter on Saturday afternoon, you are bound to hear everyone shouting!”

The media man – Mark Stevens

Stevens covered Exeter for 10 years as the Western Morning News’ sport editor before being appointed as the club’s head of communications in 2010

“It shook everyone, certainly outside the club, to see Exeter get promoted back in 2010.

“[Former Bristol, Leicester, England and British and Irish Lions back row] Martin Corry was a pundit on the television coverage of that play-off and, with 10 minutes left, he was still saying he was sure Bristol would come back to win. It never happened.

“I remember going to the first Premiership media launch up at Twickenham with Rob Baxter and our then-captain Tom Hayes. The journalists seemed to think we would only be around for a year. We finished eighth that season.

“The next year we went up for the same launch event. The questions that time were about whether we were one-season wonders. Could we stay up again? We qualified for the Heineken Cup that year.

“This week has been nuts. We have media from France here, all the British press, radio, television, online, the works. Channel Four and BT Sport have been down filming, the requests to interview the various players have been through the roof.

“When I first arrived at the club, there might only be two people at a press conference.”

The president – Bob Staddon

Staddon, who has been involved with the club as a player, coach or official since 1964, at the 2019 Premiership final (left) and Sandy Park (right)

“It is just an absolute dream come true.

“I remember during the development of Sandy Park in the early 2000s, a promotional video was made. It showed the physical development of the site, what the stadium would be like and the final clip was of a player standing in the middle of Sandy Park holding the European Champions Cup.

“At the time, a lot of the members chuckled inwardly that we were chasing that vision.

“Now we are only one game away.”

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Exeter v Racing 92: The inside story of Exeter’s rise to the Champions Cup final

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