Why Exeter are more successful than Saracens

Austin Healey
Jack Maunder, Exeter's scrum-half highly rated by Austin Healey, exemplifies the Chiefs' spirit - Rex Features

How do you measure success? By trophies or by turnover? I think you have to take both into account, which is why I would name Exeter, rather than Saracens or Leicester, as the most successful English club in the professional era.

Their story has been well told but it remains remarkable. Since winning promotion to the Premiership in 2010, they have improved season on season and have already wrapped up a play-off spot ahead of facing Northampton at Sandy Park on Saturday. Just as impressive is their balance sheet, which for last season shows a profit of £1 million. Northampton were the only others to make a profit in a league that haemorrhages money.

They have no leg-up, no sugar daddy like a Bruce Craig at Bath or Steve Lansdown at Bristol. They have not chased marquee signings. They had to build their stadium, Sandy Park, brick by brick just to enter the Premiership. It has all been about organic, sustainable growth – pretty much the holy grail of any team in professional sport.

Very few teams achieve that. Some may set out with it as a goal but then the temptation to take shortcuts becomes too great. Saracens’ dominance is as much built on a £40 million debt as their core of home-grown academy players. Leicester, by contrast, have the turnover but have not managed to sustain continued improvement on the pitch.

Exeter’s achievements this season have been largely overlooked, with much of the focus on Wasps and Saracens. They had a poor start, but are unbeaten in the league since October. They have drawn twice against Saracens and Wasps in that time and have scored well over 30 points in every other game. What I think is their most impressive quality is their resilience. They did not try to rip everything up and start again after losing to Saracens in the Premiership final last season. 

Jack Nowell celebrates his try against Saracens at Allianz Arena last January Credit: Mark Pain/REX/Shutterstock

There was no sense of panic when they had a wobble at the start of this campaign. They have the ability to regroup, bounce back and get on with their game.

They will need that in the knockout stages, when they have to back themselves. If you concentrate on what you are doing then the opposition should not be able to live with you. That is the thought process of champions. You will not win if your thought process is, ‘How do we stop the opposition?’ You have to implement your own game and we have seen Exeter do that a lot more.

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In their last league match against Harlequins, they did not have much gain-line success but they had miles more phase play. They are prepared to get hit behind the gain line and then go again. A lot of the teams have it drilled it into them that if you get hit behind the gain line then the attack is over and you need to kick it.

Once you are in your own red zone against Exeter you have to deal with wave after wave of attack. That is so dangerous because defensively you cannot stand and breathe on the short side, you have to keep working to the far side. It really tires you out.

Rob Baxter and his coaching staff recruit players they can improve, not ready-made superstars Credit: Dan Mullan/GETTY IMAGES

I would not say Exeter are the most talented side but they are the most hard-working and you could argue they are the fittest. A big difference this year is the strength and depth they have now. At various points this season they have lost key players, such as Dave Ewers, to injury, but that has not derailed them.

So much of this is down to Rob Baxter and his coaching staff. They do not go after superstars. They target players who fit into their ethos and who they can improve. Prop Harry Williams was picked up from Jersey. A couple of seasons later he is going with England to Argentina alongside Jack Maunder, a feisty, hard scrum-half. I seriously rate him.

Losing to Saracens last year will have strengthened their resolve. Saracens went through these defeats before they got to where they are. Organic growth is not always about winning, it is about learning from defeats and not overreacting to a win or a loss.

But Exeter are still on an upward curve and they possess a stronger team and squad. Saracens may seem unstoppable right now but even they would not fancy a trip to Sandy Park for a semi-final. More than Wasps or even Clermont, they pose the greatest threat to Saracens’ double double attempt.

Austin Healey is a proud ambassador of Jeep Grand Cherokee www.jeep.co.uk

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