Our aim is to help others achieve their goals, create sustainable growth and realise their true potential. To help in the journey, we often encourage people to think about their mentors; these may be people they know with whom they have a formal mentoring arrangement, or it can be examples of inspiration, motivation and best practice from the wider (or even fictional) world. By drawing on the best of others, we can learn and improve ourselves and 'borrow' the qualities we admire in order to boost our own performance.
On Saturday, an inspirational organisation which I have followed for nearly two decades reached an incredible peak in the world of sport. In an exhausting and exciting encounter played out against France’s Racing 92 at Ashton Gate in Bristol, Exeter Chiefs won the European Champions Cup to complete their rise to the top of European club rugby. Such an achievement is a highlight for any club, but to understand the significance of this achievement we must venture back in time.
In the mid-nineties, Exeter Rugby Club played at the Country Ground, an old, terraced ground (see photo, below) which they shared with the local speedway team and which was to host rugby for a century by the time the Chiefs moved to Sandy Park in 2006. Exeter were in Division 4, which they won in 1996. The following season, they won the Division 3 title (a match I happened to attend as a young rugby enthusiastic in Reading). Exeter built from those title successes, establishing themselves in whatever the second tier of the English game was called at any given time, before finally winning promotion to the promised land of the Premiership with a famous play-off victory over Bristol in 2010.
Whereas most newly promoted teams immediately find themselves in relegation battles, Exeter continued to build on the foundation they’d set, finishing eighth in their first season in the top flight. By 2016, Exeter reached their first Premiership final, and the following year a thrilling extra time victory over Wasps at Twickenham brought them their first Premiership title. The Chiefs have topped the ‘regular season’ league for the three seasons since and bid for a second English championship next weekend (we’ll gloss over why they might not have added further titles in 2018 and 2019, but if you type ‘Saracens salary cap’ into your internet search engine you might find some possible answers).
Over the years, from Division 4 to English champions, Exeter have continued to build a fantastic, community-focused club. Their move to Sandy Park enabled them to gain much greater revenue from hospitality and functions, as well as ticket revenue, and chairman Tony Rowe and his team are currently adding a hotel to the complex to develop this further. The club’s view is very much one of growth, learning and long-term development, rather than throwing huge amounts of cash at a quick dabble to win all the game can offer. They have built a strong academy and developed players from across the south west, as well as scouting experienced and skilful players with the values and work ethic to compliment that of their home-grown contingent. I believe they also maximise revenue from merchandising by keeping sales in-house, as opposed to using national retailers as virtually all other clubs do. And what has this done for them? In a world of increasing debt for sports clubs, it makes Exeter the only profitable top flight rugby club in England.
So to Ashton Gate on Saturday 17th October 2020, where Exeter faced a team playing its third European Champions Cup final in five years. Sticking to their tried, tested and exceptionally well-executed style, Exeter flew into an early lead, before an end to end exchange of scores resulted in a record for most tries in a final (8 - four apiece) and led to a nerve-shredding finish. But, at the end, drawing on all their mental and physical reserves and playing the final nine minutes with 14 men, Exeter not only hung on but added a penalty with the final kick of the game to seal a 31-27 victory. A victory that took Exeter from Division 4 to European champions in 24 years, against all odds and amid conversations of ending promotion and relegation in the English leagues. Another point to celebrate is that seven of the 15 starters in Saturday’s final came through the club’s academy, a true testament to the values, hard work, determination and talent development at the club.
And if that wasn’t enough of a story, the man that masterminded the victory on Saturday has been there through it all. Rob Baxter was a player and captain of those early title successes back in the mid-nineties (his father and brother also played for Exeter). He took a coaching role at the club following his retirement, becoming head coach in 2009 and guiding the team to promotion in his first season in charge. As Director of Rugby, Baxter has established Exeter at the top of the English game and cemented his place in rugby folklore by adding the European title to a collection like no other. An inspirational and humble leader that has achieved something truly remarkable.
So here’s to finding inspiration, motivation and examples of best practice to draw on as you strive to achieve your goals and realise your true potential. Your journey might not involve years of brutal competition on a rugby pitch but, as we take inspiration from all at Exeter Rugby Club, the seemingly impossible can become reality if you are prepared to build it, find the right people, develop the talent and commit to the effort that it requires to get there.