As a rugby tragic, aficionado, alickadoo and former ref (I’m getting the cataracts fixed this month!), I always grimace when people talk or ask about the rules of rugby.
The Exeter Chiefs are one of the great stories of English and European club rugby in recent years.
A decade ago the Devonshire side were toiling away in England’s second-tier competition, the Rugby Championship. Over the ensuing years they have vaulted from Tier 2 team to Premiership mid-table dwellers and then to four-time finalists and one-time champions.
Dave Dennis has been around for the latter third of this remarkable journey. The Wallaby of 18 caps signed with the Chiefs prior to the 2016-17 campaign. That season they won their first-ever Premiership title, with Dennis having quickly established himself as a regular starter and leader in their forward pack.
After finishing as bridesmaids to Saracens the past two seasons Exeter have taken their play up a notch or two this campaign. Currently they’re sitting at the summit of two tables: the English Premiership and Pool 2 of the European Champions Cup.
Obviously it’s early. Very early. There is still two-thirds of the season left to play.
But a rollicking start has Exeter poised to make a charge at both of these competitions. Dennis does not deny that winning ‘the double’ is already on the team’s radar.
“Yeah, very much so,” he said. “We talk about any league we enter into, we always go after it and try to win trophies. That’s where we are as a club now and where we want to be.
“We feel as though if we keep putting in the work and play to a standard that we’re capable of those two trophies are sitting there waiting for us to take.”
You cannot blame Dennis for being greedy. He was captain of the Waratahs in 2014 when they surged towards their maiden Super Rugby title. Sadly for him, he ended up missing the finals after rupturing his ACL in the last game of the regular season.
“It’s something that I really struggled with at the time, to be honest. I spent probably seven or eight years of my life trying to get to that moment and I missed out. I had mixed emotions. I was so happy for everyone but obviously couldn’t be out there. Maybe it’s a little bit of karma that I’m getting an opportunity now.”
And what an opportunity it is. Dennis finds himself representing the Chiefs at a time when they are perhaps on the verge of usurping Saracens as top dogs in England and Europe.
The veteran forward believes that the origins of Exeter’s winning culture go back even further than their rise to Premiership status nine years ago. He credits Chiefs stalwarts – including director of rugby Rob Baxter, who played over 250 games for the club – for laying the foundations of their current success decades ago.
“A lot of the qualities and values that were instilled in the past still remain now. Obviously the professionalism and the focus of the training has got better and better every year, but the basic idea of the rugby club is a group of men coming together, having a good time and sharing special moments.
“We all play the game to have a good time and enjoy it, and, yes, you enjoy winning, but you also should enjoy the journey. They do that really well here at the Chiefs.”
Winning has become habitual lately. Exeter has won seven games on the spin in all competitions, with their Aussie lock captaining the side in four of those victories.
Dennis expresses modesty about his own play on the field but feels that leadership is an area in which he thrives.
“I like building relationships, getting to know people and trying to motivate them. I just try to push messages and make sure everybody is putting in the work as well as keeping things very simple for myself. I’ve never been the best player in the team wherever I’ve been. I’ve always just tried to do the basics well and drive the team forward.”
The latest of Exeter’s victories with Dennis at the helm was against the mighty Saracens. Toppling the two-time reigning champions is always a huge achievement, but the Chiefs can now move forward in the league with the knowledge that their archrivals won’t be there to contest the title at season’s end.
Saracens’ finals hopes have already been dashed after being slapped with a 35-point penalty for exceeding the league’s salary cap.
Of course this development will not simply hand Exeter the title. There are plenty of other good English sides to push them the rest of the way, including Gloucester and a resurgent Northampton. However, having their nemesis in three of past four Premiership finals out of the way is a huge plus for the Chiefs.
Europe presents perhaps an even greater challenge. Exeter will need to take several huge scalps consecutively, which will be a huge ask for a team that has never made it past the tournament’s quarter-finals. Leinster, who have started the season with 13 straight wins, as well as Racing 92, Ulster, Munster, Clermont and Toulouse are all still in the Champions Cup mix.
Saracens still have a pulse too. If both teams keep winning their European matches, the Sarries-Exeter saga may well have another chapter left to write this season.
Going deep into Europe will also equal more games played for Exeter. Additionally, they have qualified for the Premiership Cup semi-finals, which adds one, potentially two, more games to their schedule.
It will be an almighty war of attrition, but Dennis is confident that Exeter have the personnel to do it – not just in terms of numbers but also the mix within it.
“One thing that the club has done well over the years is build a really strong squad in terms of depth. We’ve currently got 60-odd players. There’s a real nice blend of people involved too—the odd foreigner, a lot of local lads, a lot of guys that come through the academy,” he said.
They have great continuity too. Santiago Cordero’s departure to Bordeaux is the only notable subtraction from last season. Otherwise it’s the same formidable group plus a pair of South African bruisers and star fullback Stuart Hogg who altogether make the Chiefs look like legitimate world-beaters.
It would be a remarkable story if the Chiefs can jump from minnows to double-winners in less than a decade. It will be tough, but after an excellent start and with a voracious Aussie leading the charge they have a bloody good shot at it.