Exeter Chiefs and English rugby's greatest fairytale: From the Championship to Champions Cup final in 10 extraordinary years

A decade on from sealing promotion to the Premiership at Ashton Gate, Rob Baxter's men return to Bristol with their eyes set on European rugby's greatest prize - with their Racing 92 showdown live on BT Sport.

By Callum Davis Published: 15 October 2020 - 2.16pm

On Saturday 17 October, the remarkable Exeter Chiefs story will come full circle.

Ten years after sealing promotion to the Premiership at Ashton Gate, Exeter return to the scene of their greatest triumph hoping to write a new chapter in their short but storied history with a maiden Heineken Champions Cup trophy.

Standing in their way are French giants Racing 92, who themselves are seeking to lift the trophy for the first time, and you can watch the climatic end to the European season live on BT Sport 2 HD and Ultimate from 4pm.

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When the Heineken Cup final was first contested 25 years ago, Exeter Rugby Club were plying their trade in the fourth tier of the English pyramid. Now they're nearing the summit of European rugby after a meteoric rise to the top.

The Devonians have not just made their mark, they've established themselves as English rugby's next great dynasty, with many tipping them to add a second Premiership crown to the one they won in 2017 when they take on Wasps at Twickenham - live on BT Sport 1 HD and Ultimate from 5.15pm on Saturday 24 October.

Glory on two fronts this season will underline one of British rugby’s most spectacular success stories.    

“The journey is part of what we are about as a club. ”
- Rob Baxter, director of rugby

Local businessman and chairman Tony Rowe has been a driving force at the Exeter club for more than 25 years.

A former powerboat racing champion, he has helped steer the club lower leagues to Premiership summit.

Now in his early 70s, Rowe’s enthusiasm and passion for the club remain at their peak, and there will be no prouder figure than him when Exeter contest Premiership and European finals during the next 12 days.

It's been an adventure co-masterminded by former club captain and current director of rugby Rob Baxter.

Back when he was skipper, Baxter was leading the Chiefs out against teams like Aspatria, Havant, Liverpool St Helens, Walsall and local foes Plymouth Albion or Redruth.  

Saturday's game represents uncharted territory for both the club and their leader.

“The journey is part of what we are about as a club," said Baxter as he reflected on the semi-final triumph over record-winners Toulouse.

"It has always been about having things to aim for. The important thing is to not go away, it's a little bit like this club’s history. We dropped down to the fourth division and we got promoted and we then spent ages in the Championship trying to get out of there."

If Baxter has been the brains behind Exeter's ascent, then fly-half Gareth Steenson has been the face.

The 36-year-old announced in July that he would be retiring at the end of the current season after 12 years with the Chiefs.

The Ulster-born back is already an honourary Devonian after kicking the club into the Premiership back in 2010, and now he has the chance to go out in style.

For Steenson, it would be a fitting finale to a career that was inspired by his early experiences of watching the Heineken Cup as a child.

“I remember when Ulster went down to Dublin,” he said. 

“I remember getting on a bus going down as a young kid. I must have been 14 or 15 years old.

“I remember standing on the sidelines at the semi-final watching David Humphreys put a chip over the top and scoring in the corner – and that’s all I ever wanted to do.

“It was a special moment to watch that and that’s always been with us a little bit. Especially growing up in Ulster, it was always something you wanted to do – play in the Heineken Cup.

“Albeit, did I ever see me doing that with Exeter Chiefs? To be honest, when I joined them in the Championship, it was very hard to envisage that.

“To be sitting now on the brink of it [winning the tournament], it’s obviously very exciting. But at the end of the day we haven’t won anything yet. It would mean a heck of a lot more if we can get across the line and play well in the final.

“To be in the scenario that we are now, where I’m at in my career, any disappointments or any regrets that I’ve ever had in my career would probably just go out the window, because you couldn’t ask for better.

“I’m just thrilled that we get the opportunity to be in a final. If we can win it and I can be part of the first ever Exeter Chiefs squad that wins that, it would be a lovely way to go into retirement.”

Steenson is not the only many looking to end an era at the time, with long-time Chiefs servant Phil Dollman joining the fly-half in retiring come the end of the season. 

Dollman was Baxter's first signing after becoming Chiefs boss in 2009 and since their promotion to the top flight, only Steenson has played more minutes for the club than the 35-year-old.

The utility back helped Exeter win promotion from the Championship in his first season and has been a key part of the sides that have made each of the past four Premiership finals.

"He's a great guy, very popular in the squad, has played a phenomenal amount of good rugby for us and been a key part of the journey to where we are now, I just can't give the guy enough credit," said Baxter.  

With the passing of the old guard comes the beginning of a new dawn.

The torch has already been taken up by a new crop of Chieftains, with 23-year-old captain Joe Simmonds at the helm.

Simmonds and his older brother Sam have been the driving force behind Exeter's European tilt this season. 

Sam is the leading try scorer in the competition and the two siblings marked a memorable day by both crossing for tries in the semi-final victory over Toulouse.

The only tragedy was that the match was played without the support of the Sandy Park faithful, but even without fans the Simmonds boys were quick to savour a special moment as Joe crossed for Exeter's final try of the afternoon.

When Joe embraced Sam, having worked together to create that dazzling 70th-minute score, it symbolised what a historic day it was for the region as a whole.

For Sam, who picked up the man of the match award, it was another breathtaking performance in a standout season that has earned him a European Player of the Year nomination.

“He does alright!” Joe joked after the match. “I wouldn’t say it to his face, but yeah he does well and he gets the team going forward. It’s nice having him in the team. 

"We never really talk about it too much, but when we finish playing and look back it’s going to be a proud moment for both of us. For now though, we’ve got to just keep playing well week in, week out.”  

The Simmonds subplot represents a home-grown story that embodies the close-knit set up at Exeter.

The Simmonds subplot represents a home-grown story that embodies the close-knit set up at Exeter.

The brothers came through the academy, having grown up in the fishing port of Teignmouth, where their father Dave was a ­lobster and crab fisherman.  

“I saw a tweet saying there’s eight or 10 in the 23 that have come through the academy – that’s brilliant,” said Joe. 

“The way the coaches read the players is brilliant. For me to captain such a great team is brilliant.”  

It's that pack mentality that is driving Exeter's quest to a league and European Cup double in what has been a season like no other.

"We’ve got a fantastic team spirit. I think you see that in the games we play, that togetherness, and by the time 70 minutes rolls around that’s the sort of thing that can get you over the line," said Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, who joined the club as a schoolboy.

"The majority of the side now were in the academy together and we always said back then that it would be good to step up and play together in the first team.

"I’ve been at the club for 10 years and a lot of the others have been here for that long as well. It’s just really enjoyable to see how far we’ve all come. Playing a European Cup final so close to home will be special, too."

In this most incredible of seasons, will we witness a fitting conclusion and another miraculous Exeter day out in Bristol?

Watch Exeter Chiefs v Racing 92 from 4pm on Saturday 17 October - live on BT Sport 2 HD and BT Sport Ultimate.