LONDON (Reuters) - So it seems nice guys – and nice clubs – can finish first as Exeter Chiefs, almost incredibly, find themselves as English rugby’s Premiership champions after a gutsy extra-time victory over Wasps that was the epitome of their approach to the game.
Seven years ago when they were promoted to the top flight for the first time, most observers thought the homely west country club would soon disappear and remain an interesting footnote to a league where many people were still arguing against the concept of promotion and relegation.
However, they survived, then thrived, building gradually within their means, bringing in the odd experienced signing while producing a pipeline of academy players into the first team and have become every fan’s second-favourite club.
Last season they defied the odds to reach the final, where they fell to Saracens but a year on they downed the European champions at their Devon home and set off to Twickenham with a different mindset.
No longer the wide-eyed guests somewhat flattered to be at the home of rugby, they arrived on Saturday full of belief on the back of an unbeaten Premiership run of 16 games.
In a memorable final they led 14-3 then found themselves 20-14 behind but managed to scramble a late penalty to take the game to extra time at 20-20.
Then, with three minutes left on the clock, one more scrum shove earned the penalty that Gareth Steenson duly landed.
Wasps, double European champions and a club who had won their last 10 finals in all competitions, were beaten and scarcely believably, Exeter, who were basically a parks team bouncing along in the fourth tier when the game turned professional in 1995, were the champions.
It was a fitting finale to Steenson’s testimonial season after 10 years at the club.
”I never thought I’d see days like this,“ he said, as the Chiefs fans chanted his name. ”This is huge for the club and area and for the people who have been following us for years and years.
“It is unbelievable, I cannot even put it into words to be honest.”
Steenson, however, seems like a newcomer alongside Rob Baxter, who spent 14 years at the club as a player, 10 as captain, before another eight as head coach.
“It’s a huge reward for masses of hard work by a group of players, not just these guys, but players who have played over the years and lost a lot of games,” Baxter said.
“I’ve played and coached a few games here at Twickenham and never won so it feels a bit special to have come through those tough times and turn it around to this.”
Many clubs talk about developing a culture but with Exeter it is clear that the togetherness from top to bottom has created a tremendous bond.
They are officially the best team in England yet have barely a household name among their staff - England and Lions winger Jack Nowell the shining exception.
“It’s surreal, it means so much to the boys, the backroom staff, everyone at the club,” Nowell said.
“The ambition from Rob is at the top and that feeds through the team. You can see how much it meant for him so its great to be able to do it for him.”
Editing by Rex Gowar