Exeter Chiefs are renowned as one of England’s top rugby union sides and, but for the coronavirus pandemic, would likely be challenging to reach a fifth successive Premiership final.
On 26 May 2010, though, the club had never played a game in the top tier and were facing their biggest match ever – the Championship play-off final second leg against Bristol.
History will show that Exeter won 29-10 at the Memorial Stadium to follow a 9-6 win at Sandy Park the week before – victories that started the rise of a side that is now among the very best in the domestic game.
BBC Sport caught up with some of the men who were key to that success to relive it a decade on.
The first Championship
English rugby’s second tier had been given a makeover for the 2009-10 season. The old 16-team National One league was replaced by the 12-team Championship – and it was gruelling.
A 22-game regular season was followed by round-robin games with the top eight sides in two pools aiming for a semi-final place and the bottom four fighting relegation. After that, there was a one-legged semi-final and a two-legged final.
Add to that five pool fixtures in the newly-formed British and Irish Cup and the Chiefs played 36 matches that season.
“It was the first time they’d tried it in terms of the play-off system, and everybody was involved whether you were at the top of the table or towards the bottom,” recalled winger Matt Jess, who was the Championship’s top try-scorer with 14 tries that season.
“It was a huge slog and effectively we had two pre-seasons.”
As well as their usual pre-season in the summer, Exeter’s coaches had put their players through a six-week ‘mini pre-season’ at the end of 2009.
“From the moment we came in until the end of the play-offs there were 50 weeks in a row of either training or games,” added Steenson, who scored a league-high 280 points and kicked Exeter to glory in the final.
“There were definitely a few eyebrows raised around Christmas thinking ‘we’re going into pre-season training’, lifting a lot heavier weights and not as many pitch sessions.
“Yes we lost a few games and a few people were asking if the wheels had fallen off, but in the grand scheme of things we got our tactics right and it went well for us going into the final stretch.”
Exeter’s own pressure
In 2008-09 Exeter finished second behind Leeds. A loss to Moseley in March in a league game that also doubled up as a National Trophy semi-final saw head coach Pete Drewett sacked.
It was the second year in a row that they had finished second and missed out on promotion, having just moved to Premiership-ready Sandy Park from the old County Ground.
Chiefs had assembled a squad of the best players from the south west of England, with Jess joining from Launceston, Steenson leading an exodus from Cornish Pirates and Nic Sesteret and Tom Hayes moving from Plymouth Albion.
Rob Baxter took over as head coach that summer and brought in backs coach Ali Hepher and skills coach Ricky Pellow – all of whom are still coaching at Sandy Park.
“When I joined, you could see the club wanted to go places, and that’s why we were all brought in,” says Steenson.
“We maybe got it slightly wrong, we had a very big senior squad and trying to keep everybody happy in that environment is difficult.
“By trimming the squad down you got more game time, we were a bit more of a unit and we just got it right that year.”
But in his first season as a head coach, Baxter says ‘pressure’ is not the right words to describe it.
“I actually think it was showing a confidence,” he told BBC Sport. “When we invested a lot of money to increase our capacity so we would be able to take up a position in the Premiership if we won, it showed quite a lot of faith in the lads, and I think it certainly showed the lads that whatever happened, we were there and ready to go.”
Nocturnal Chiefs prepare for final
Confidence was high – Exeter lost just three games all season, all of them coming in succession in December during their mid-season pre-season.
They ended the campaign second behind relegated Premiership team Bristol on bonus points after both sides posted 19 wins and three losses.
After topping their promotion pool, Exeter went on to beat Bedford 37-8 in the semi-finals before the two-legged affair with Bristol – live on television and under floodlights.
But like the December pre-season, Exeter had an innovative way to prepare for their late games.
“Back then all our games were three o’clock traditional kick-offs, but the final was going to be in the evening, which was completely different to what we were doing,” said fly-half Steenson.
“So we had this idea that if we trained at the time we were playing, our body clocks would fit with it, which was a really good thing to do.
“I remember coming home and being told I had to stay up until two or three o’clock in the morning and then sleep in until 11 o’clock the next day to try to get our body clocks into sync with kick-off.”
Baxter added: “Mentally it was such a good thing as much as anything else.
“All of a sudden there’s a little bit of a shift, the lads know you’re leaving no stone unturned in your preparation for the game, and the weather was nice, so to turn up at Sandy Park and train in some balmy evenings was actually really nice.
“The lads also heard that Bristol hadn’t changed anything, so all those little things they start to hear and they start think ‘maybe were tipping the balance in our favour by doing these bits and pieces’.”
‘There was almost electricity in the air’
The first leg of the final was one for the purists – a 9-6 Exeter win at Sandy Park as Steenson kicked three penalties to Adrian Jarvis’ two for Bristol.
“That was a hard game, one of the toughest games I’ve seen at Sandy Park in terms of the physicality, the not backing down and two teams knocking lumps out of each other legally,” recalled Baxter.
Jess added: “You had a lot of players that had been so close to playing Premiership rugby and not been able to fulfil their dreams and they were coming at loggerheads against players who had been there, seen it and done it.”
But it was the second leg that would decide Exeter’s fate.
“There was almost electricity in the air that night,” continued Baxter. “I can’t really explain it, but it’s funny how so many people who were also there felt their same. There was some kind of crackle, you could almost feel it.
“My wife said ‘I watched the lads warm up and I knew something special was happening’ – for people to feel it just shows you way at was going on that night.”
It was a nervy game early on – two Steenson penalties put Exeter nine ahead on aggregate, but Luke Arscott’s 16th-minute try saw the gap down to two points.
But at a rain-soaked Memorial Stadium Steenson kept his nerve – kicking two more penalties before half-time to give his side breathing space and adding a further two penalties and a pair of drop goals.
Then Simon Alcott’s late try secured promotion with a 29-10 win on the night and 38-16 on aggregate.
“I just saw it as doing my role for the team,” recalls Northern Ireland-born Steenson, who landed 33 points over the two games.
“I’m in the side to do a certain job, I’m not in the side to win a scrum penalty, I’m not in the side to win a line-out – that’s the beauty of our game.
“It does look from the outside like one man stepping up and doing that, but that’s what my role was.
“Now when I sit back and think about what has happened over the last few years I didn’t really appreciate at the time how big it may have been, which is probably a good thing.
“If I’d actually gone back and thought about the amount of pressure that’s on this it might have played on my mind.”
Beginning of a legacy
Exeter have gone from strength to strength since that day – they finished eighth in their first season when everyone said they would go down – and are now one of the most consistent sides in the league.
Jess said: “Two or three years after, there wasn’t huge amounts of changes. A few people retired, but whatever signing was coming in, there was already a culture at the Chiefs.
“Because there were no wholesale changes, the culture at the club stayed, a culture that went all the way back to the days at the County Ground.”
Baxter added: “The best bits of the culture that made Exeter Chiefs strong are still there, but our expectations of what we demand from the players has altered slightly.
“It’s not just going to be good enough to work hard and give it a go, it’s not what top-level professional sport’s all about.
“It’s not good enough just to run about and work hard. You’ve got to be very focused on what you’re doing and the benefits to the team that your small actions can make.
“As we’ve focused more and more on that, and the lads have bought into that, that’s created that bit more success.”
That success came to a pinnacle seven years and one day after promotion, when Exeter beat Wasps to win the 2017 Premiership final.
“The beauty of what we did over the years to get to the point where we’re winning Premierships and being a top side is we understood where we were at each stage and we knew we had to keep growing,” said Steenson.
“If you look at the guys that have come into the club throughout the years, they’ve fitted the club, the attitude of the lads here and bought into the culture.
“You see players wanting to come and play for Exeter Chiefs, that’s where we’re at at the moment, as opposed to us approaching players.
“I still believe the club’s going to get better to this day.
“Where we’re at, we need to be looking to conquer Europe. We weren’t going to conquer Europe five years ago, it takes a wee bit of time to learn, and I think now we’re getting to that point.”
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