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Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Tuesday, 25 May 2010 13:38 UK

Exeter Chiefs closing in on Premiership dream

Sandy Park
Exeter's ground Sandy Park now has a capacity of 10,000

By Dave Gibbins & Philip Tuckett
BBC South West sport

The South West has a long-held tradition of producing international rugby players, and is subsequently thought of as a hot-bed of the sport.

Phil Vickery, Graham Dawe, Phil de Glanville and Stack Stevens are but a few of those who have proudly flown the flag for Devon and Cornwall in the international arena.

But when it comes to club rugby, the region tells a different story, with not one team ever having made it into the top-flight.

The historians may soon have to re-write the record books, as Exeter Chiefs are now only one step away from filling the void, an achievement which John Lockyer, BBC Radio Devon's rugby summariser, believes is long overdue.

I'm very nervous but excited as well, because in a way we've been 12 years building up to this and everything's in our hands

Exeter chief executive Tony Rowe

"The West country is a rugby stronghold, and let's be honest, it certainly is time for us to have a side to play against Wasps, Bath and Gloucester," he said.

Exeter have been in the second-tier of English rugby for 13 years, and have been threatening to land the big prize by coming closer and closer to promotion in recent times.

The 2004/5 season was the first time the Chiefs announced themselves as serious promotion contenders, finishing second in National One, just four points behind Bristol.

Three years later they were challenging again, ending the 2007/8 season behind Northampton Saints.

1997/98 - 11th
1998/99 - 6th
1999/00 - 4th
2000/01 - 3rd
2001/02 - 3rd
2002/03 - 3rd
2003/04 - 6th
2004/05 - 2nd
2005/06 - 6th
2006/07 - 4th
2007/08 - 2nd
2008/09 - 2nd

It was more of the same last term, as the Devon side finished the season in the runners-up spot, this time to Leeds Carnegie.

Supporters began to talk of a worrying pattern emerging, with the Chiefs destined to always finish as bridesmaids and never the bride, as the team relegated from the Premiership bounced straight back up to the top division every year.

Perhaps the Rugby Football Union had this thought in mind when they decided to change the format of the league for the current campaign, introducing end of season play-offs in an attempt to keep interest alive right until the final whistle was blown.

And if that was their aim, the Championship's governing body can look at the way the story of the current season has unfolded with satisfied smiles.

Exeter finished the regular season as runners-up once again, this time to Bristol, but the clubs still had the play-offs to come.

Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter navigated his men through the knock-out competition in stylish fashion, picking up comfortable wins over both Nottingham and Bedford en route to meeting Bristol again in the final.

The two promotion contenders met in the first match of a two-legged play-off final at Sandy Park last Wednesday, and it was the Chiefs who edged it, winning 9-6 in front of over 10,000 partisan fans.

With the second-leg set to be played out at Bristol's Memorial Stadium this Wednesday, both teams know promotion is now only one win away.

Victory for the Chiefs would not only give Devon its rightful place on the top tier of the rugby map, but it would signal the first time since Worcester's promotion in 2004, that a new team has broken into the Premiership fold.

If Exeter do manage to achieve the dream, it would be all change at Sandy Park, particularly on the money side.

Premiership rugby would see the Chiefs' income rise substantially, a fact not lost on chief executive Tony Rowe.

Rowe told BBC Sport: "Getting into the Premiership doubles our gross income from rugby.

"At the moment our gross income from rugby is about £4m and that will go up to £8m just on the rugby side.

A fantastic game of rugby - Baxter

"I'm very nervous but excited as well, because in a way we've been 12 years building up to this and everything's in our hands.

"It's ours to win or lose," added Rowe.

Top-flight rugby at Sandy Park would also give Devon's fans the chance to admire the high-profile international players that litter clubs such as Bath, Leicester, Wasps and Gloucester.

And the prospect of big-name stars running out at the Devon club is something that Mike Churcher, Exeter's matchday sponsorship account executive, believes would bring sponsorship pouring into the club.

Chrucher told BBC Sport: "The big difference between the finances involved is the level of national exposure Premiership rugby brings, because of course, it's the top level.

"It's going to benefit the club but the whole region will benefit as well.


"A lot of supporters will travel down and stay over, and we'll also get more fans from the surrounding areas."

Win or lose on Wednesday, Devon's rugby fans can be proud of the achievements of the Chiefs this season, as they have proved themselves to be firmly on the path to becoming a real force in English rugby.

Churcher added: "We're just looking forward to the evening. The players have shown what they're capable of doing.

"If they can do it one more time there will be great rewards for everybody involved."

You can listen to live commentary of Bristol v Exeter Chiefs on BBC Radio Devon and online from 1900 BST on Wednesday, 26 May.

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