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Freshers’ guide to: Exeter Chiefs

One of the many benefits of studying at the University of Exeter is having top-class rugby on your doorstep. In Exeter Chiefs, the city boasts a team that is full of international stars and is experiencing the most successful period in its history. Having secured back-to-back top half finishes in the Aviva Premiership, the club also participates in the Heineken Cup, which means you could see the likes of Sam Warburton and Jonny Wilkinson playing in Devon this season. Sandy Park has also been chosen as one of the host stadiums for the Rugby World Cup in 2015, so the future certainly looks bright for the West Country’s number one team.

A brief history

Exeter Rugby Club was formed in 1871 and played its first match against St Luke’s College in 1873. After success in the Devon leagues throughout the 20th century, the decision was made to turn professional in the 1990s and a Board of Directors led by Chairman Tony Rowe was created to steer the side forward. Having changed their name to the Exeter Chiefs in 1999, the club soon started to challenge for promotion to the Premiership, the highest tier of English rugby, under the stewardship of Head Coach Ian Bremner.

The home ground of the Chiefs, Sandy Park. Photo credits to rugbynetwork.net

A move away from the County Ground in St Thomas in 2006 brought the Chiefs to their current home at Sandy Park. A period of consolidation followed before ex-player Rob Baxter became Head Coach in 2009. This made an immediate difference as the team progressed to the Premiership for the first time in their history after beating Bristol in a play-off.

Their first match in the top tier saw them collect a victory against Gloucester and they went on to finish eighth in their debut season. Consecutive top-six finishes followed as Devon’s finest also had their first foray into European competition. The recent success of the Exeter Chiefs has surprised many onlookers and they will look to continue their incredible progress as they head into the new season.

2012/13 season summary

After finishing fifth in 2011/12, Exeter Chiefs were keen to go one better last season and qualify for the Premiership semi-finals by finishing in the top four. They made a mixed start with good victories against Saracens and Harlequins offset by disappointing defeats to Northampton and newly promoted London Welsh. The Heineken Cup proved a welcome distraction for Rob Baxter’s men as their first ever match in the competition saw them come within a whisker of a draw against reigning champions Leinster.

A big loss against a star-studded Clermont Auvergne side at Sandy Park did not dent the Chiefs’ confidence as they recorded back-to-back successes against the Scarlets. However, a run of six matches without a win over the New Year period was a big blow and the main objective suddenly became Premiership survival. This hurdle was negotiated safely and an excellent end to the campaign saw them qualify for Europe once again with a sixth place finish.

Star players

Jack Nowell (Wing/Fullback) - Nowell exploded into English rugby during last season with a string of impressive of performances for Exeter Chiefs. Comfortable at either fullback or on the wing, Nowell has won plaudits in rugby circles for his aggressive running and strong defence. After being named as the Breakthrough player of the season, the 20-year-old played a key part in the England Under 20s’ triumphant World Cup campaign, scoring a pivotal try in the final. An England Saxons call up followed, making Nowell definitely one to watch this season.

Australian Dean Mumm takes over from the injured Tommy Hayes as Chiefs captain this season. Photo credits to foxsports.com.au

Dean Mumm (Lock/Flanker) - One big change at Sandy Park over the summer has seen Australian flanker Dean Mumm named as the team’s new captain. Before moving to Devon at the start of last season, he had spent the majority of his career playing Super Rugby for the Waratahs. His impressive performances saw him called up to the Australian squad whilst he has also represented the Barbarians. With 33 internationals caps to his name, Mumm will need to lead from the front if Exeter are to challenge for honours in 2013/14.

Gareth Steenson (Fly-Half) - Gareth Steenson has been a key component of Exeter’s team for many years and could be considered one the best players in the club’s history. Having joined from Cornish Pirates in 2008, the Irish born fly-half played a major role in the Chiefs’ promotion to the Premiership in 2010 as he kicked 24 points in the second leg of the play-off final against Bristol. With his attacking flair now starting to match his accuracy in front of the posts, it could be a big year for Steenson who is also now qualified to play for England.

Tom James (Wing) - Of all the new signings that Rob Baxter has made over the summer, Welsh international Tom James looks to be the most exciting. The explosive winger has made ten appearances for his country but it is his domestic performances for Cardiff Blues that caught the eye of the Chief’s Head Coach. His pace and strength saw him score nearly 50 tries for the Pro12 club and he will now be looking to replicate that form in the Premiership and push towards further international caps.

Prices and how to get there

Student tickets to Sandy Park are readily available and vary from £15 to £21 depending on where you wish to view the action from. The ground is easily accessible using public transport, with regular buses to the ground on match days costing just £3 for a return from St. Davids station or Exeter bus station. The train is even cheaper, with a £1.80 return available for students with a railcard which will take you to Digby & Sowton station – about a ten minute walk away from the stadium.

As well the top quality rugby on show at an Exeter Chiefs match, there is plenty more to keep the crowd entertained. There is often live music before and after the game along with a mascot chase at the half-time interval. The ground also offers some authentic West Country cuisine with supporters readily indulging in pasties and cider. With all this on offer, it will not be long before you are singing the trademark ‘Tomahawk Chop’ chant and cheering the Chiefs onto victory!

Simon Dewhurst

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