Are Exeter Chiefs the new Leicester City?

Exeter and Leicester

Exeter could emulate Leicester and become first-time winners of the English title

Everyone knows the story of Leicester City – the team that was greater than the sum of its parts and stormed to the Premier League title.

But come Saturday a similar story might be written in rugby union, as Exeter Chiefs take on reigning English and European champions Saracens in the Premiership final.

They are a club that was in the fourth tier of English rugby 20 years ago, and won promotion to the top flight for the first time in their in 2010.

BBC Sport examines the similarities between English football’s top side, and the club aiming to be the best in English rugby.

The managers: Rob Baxter and Claudio Ranieri


Baxter has spent his entire playing and coaching career at Exeter, whereas Claudio Ranieri is ending his first season as Leicester boss

Claudio Ranieri has rightly been hailed for his dealings in the transfer market, bringing in unheralded players and turning them into league champions. Had anybody really heard of N’Golo Kante or Christian Fuchs before this season?

But has Exeter’s boss done an even more impressive job? Wales prop Tomas Francis joined the club from Championship side London Scottish, Olly Woodburn was surplus to requirements at Bath and former England men Geoff Parling and Thomas Waldrom have enjoyed new leases of life under the Chiefs boss.

“When Rob was a player he didn’t take second best from anybody on or off the field, and he’s taken that through to the coaching side,” said former Exeter player and BBC Radio Devon pundit John Lockyer.

“You see the homework he and fellow coaches Ali Hepher and Rob Hunter do to recruit players. They don’t just talk to agents – they look in to it so deeply and they find out so much about these lads, they put hours of research in to getting the right players at the right time.”

And Baxter’s ability to galvanise a squad – much like Ranieri – has come in for praise as well.

“I know that other coaches have a problem trying to keep other guys focused if they’re not in the 23,” Exeter chairman Tony Rowe told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“You’ve always got a big chunk of boys that are disappointed each week. Rob is able to keep them all engaged and focused, and that’s a tremendous talent in itself.

“If someone is annoyed in the changing room it doesn’t take very long for it to spread and you lose the changing room.”

The Dangermen: Thomas Waldrom and Jamie Vardy


New Zealand-born Waldrom won five England caps between 2012 and 2013, while Vardy has earned seven since his debut last June

When it comes to goals, few could match Jamie Vardy’s impact on the Premier League – 24 in 36 league games helped propel the Foxes to the title.

But Exeter have had their own try-scoring machine, Thomas Waldrom. Twelve tries in 22 games saw him top the charts in the Premiership, and that having only crossed the whitewash for the first time at the start of December, when he scored a hat-trick against Wasps.

“Amazingly, Leicester Tigers didn’t offer him a contract two years ago,” said Lockyer. “He was being used as a replacement and he wanted to play.

“There were a lot of people who wondered why we were signing a player who was over the top and not getting a lot of rugby, but Ali Hepher and Rob Baxter’s eye for talent was spot on.”

Surplus to requirements elsewhere: Olly Woodburn and Marc Albrighton


Woodburn has scored eight tries in 22 games this season, while Mark Albrighton scored two goals in 42 games

“For years I’ve gone out and tried to show them with my performances that I’m Premiership standard,” Olly Woodburn told BBC Sport after his move from Bath to Exeter.

The winger struggled to get a look in at Bath, with last season’s Premiership finalists packed full of internationals.

But at Exeter this season the 24-year-old has thrived, scoring eight tries in all competitions, rather like Leicester’s Mark Albrighton.

The midfielder could not buy a game at Aston Villa, but after a move to the King Power in 2014 he has been a revelation and played in every one of Leicester’s 38 league games.

The comeback kings: Robert Huth and Geoff Parling


Huth won 19 caps for Germany between 2004 and 2009. Parling won 29 England caps and played three Lions tests from 2012-2015

One is 6ft 3in, the other 6ft 6in. But, aside from their stature, Robert Huth and Geoff Parling do have other things in common too.

Both joined their clubs last summer, both were the wrong side of 30 and both of their international careers appeared to be over.

But both have also shone in new environments and gone on to great success at club level. Now can Parling match Huth in collecting a third league title winner’s medal?

The creative wizards: Ian Whitten and Riyad Mahrez


Whitten’s only international caps came in the summer, while Mahrez joined French fourth division side Quimper

“Every game this season he’s given the same solid performance,” says Lockyer of centre Ian Whitten. “He’s a standout player in a team which is seen as greater than the sum of its parts.”

And that phrase could equally be true of a certain Riyad Mahrez.

This time last year, if you mentioned either of these players’ names to people who did not support the teams they play for, you would have got probably the same answer. ‘Who?’

Mahrez famously joined Leicester for £400,000 in 2013, and his contribution in terms of goals and assists has been priceless.

But Whitten’s contribution at centre for Exeter could be cast in a similar vein – an under-the-radar signing from Ulster in 2012, having won two Ireland caps on a similarly low-key tour to North America in 2009.

One-club wonders: Ben Moon and Andy King


Moon was born in Tiverton, just 30 miles down the North Devon Link Road from Andy King’s birthplace of Barnstaple

Andy King is the only player to have won the Premier League, Championship and League One with the same side. A true one-club man, he does not always get the accolades he deserves.

Exeter also have such a man, in the form of prop Ben Moon.

Like King, he was born in Devon, came through his club’s youth ranks to make his debut as a teenager, is not an automatic choice to start and is capped at international Under-21 level – although King has gone on to win senior caps for Wales, while Moon has yet to trouble the England selectors.

But like King he always gives his all when called upon and is a favourite of the fans.

“Props don’t get many accolades but he came through the academy system,” said Lockyer “He will do anything you ask, he’s a gentleman off the field, a lovely man and a very good player.”

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