We may have lost, but Chiefs have so much more to come
ENGAGING our corporate guests on a matchday is one of the more enjoyable aspects of my job. I revel in discussing the game and sharing a few laughs with our commercial partners in Sandy Park's three suites and 11 boxes.
However, as a loyal and passionate Chiefsman, I don't allow the important business of entertaining clients and guests to remain a quiet and serene pre-match affair. I've delighted in building a corporate experience that ensures the whole room echoes with the sound of the tomahawk chop chant.
Four or five of the guys from the professional squad who are not involved in the day's game join me and our guests. While photos of players are taken with sponsors, I like to select a member of the crowd to show how it should be done. On Sunday, much was the same as big Julian Tagg, executive director of football at Exeter City FC, became the cheerleader who showed supporters what I was expecting them to do once the match was under way.
Being the good sport that he is, Julian gave a rousing rendition for the 200-odd guests in our principle suite that really did get the hairs on the back of the neck standing up. It's no wonder the Grecians are having another big start to their season with a guy like Taggy, who really is an inspirational man and great ambassador for all things Exeter.
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Back to Sunday, come the moment when I anticipated the room to follow Taggy's lead and roar with the chant, there was merely a whisper. Not what was required! I took the microphone to address our guests. Following a little encouragement from yours truly, the response was nigh-on deafening. What was previously a low key atmosphere turned into the electricity for which Sandy Park is fast becoming famous.
Although I didn't pick it up at the time, I feel that my experience through the corporate lounges was perhaps a sign of what was to come on the pitch just over an hour later. Rather than explode into the game, the Chiefs were on the back foot from the off as our star-studded opponents, who had selected their biggest possible pack for this encounter, bullied their way to a 15-0 half-time score that we were never able to overhaul.
It felt like watching a heavyweight boxer fight a middleweight. What Leicester lacked in subtlety, they made up for in sheer brute force. This was compounded by the fact that we were not landing much back for the first 40.
Following the half-time break, a different boxer came out in Chiefs colours and began to land combinations that rocked the Tigers back on their heels. The first 20 minutes of the second half was all Chiefs and, although pride was restored, the punishment of the earlier rounds left us just short of delivering the knock-out punch to fell the Midlanders with the 12th-round onslaught that beat London Irish just eight days earlier.
It was evident from Leicester's celebrations just how important the victory was to them. The Chiefs are still growing as a team and blue chip club. Mixing with the European heavyweights and realising just how big the challenge is to get a result at Sandy Park in these big games is all a part of our evolution. The back slapping and cheering from Tigers changing room on Sunday is evidence that we are getting very close.
Nevertheless one must remember that the charitable first half aside, this was a contest the Chiefs were firmly in. Although the defeat was hard to take, we do well to take stock that this is still only our fourth season in the top tier, while the Tigers have been here ad infinitum, this is as good as they will be and we have so much more to bring to our game and our club!
Statistically the game looked very good – we gained nearly twice as many metres than our opponents and had nigh on 70 per cent possession. As we continue to grow into the heavyweight we aspire to be – provided we keep our range of punches – we will have a much better all-round game than our conquerors from Sunday and, in my eyes, a brighter future.
After the game on Sunday, my penultimate duty is to usher the presentation party onto the pitch to present the player of the day. As this was also our last fixture in September, the player of the month was also to be presented.
I feel it's appropriate to acknowledge Chiefs' Dave Ewers as winner of both awards.
We might have expected there to be a chasm left in the squad with the retirement of Chiefs living legend Rich Baxter. Playing as an ever-present and retiring at the peak of his game, it was always going to be a challenge to find a replacement to step up to the high standards set by the old goat. I've heard a whisper from the changing room that the spot where he used to get changed since arriving at Sandy Park has also been retired!
However, the young buck from Zimbabwe (via Ivybridge) has stepped up with confidence and youthful aplomb to prove little short of a revelation this season. Never one to shirk banging the Chiefs drum acknowledging a top performer, I for one am really pleased to see the Predator take on the No. 8 jersey and show that, although we will never replace lion-hearted Rich, we have a pretty decent successor!
And finally, on to the marquee fixture in Devon from the weekend gone, Exmouth v London Irish Wild Geese. With Crediton's finest, George Savage, on the sidelines nursing a rather nasty-looking injury, the chips were down for the Mighty Muff as this development arm of London Irish came to the Imperial Ground with heliotrope firmly in their sights.
Winless thus far in the season but boasting a big victory from the same fixture last term, the Irish threw everything but the kitchen sink at us in an effort to pull themselves off the foot of the league.
Behind on the scoreboard in the pouring rain midway through the second half and with not much to pick between the sides, I found myself with ball in hand a yard or so from the try line. My excitement at the proximity to the line meant I tripped over the laces of my luminous yellow boots and somehow managed to dot down a try to regain the lead.
A follow-up try from Chiefs conditioner Dave Bargent meant a winning buffer was in place that saw us edge a 19-16 thriller. Exmouth Cockles have beaten the sides top and bottom of the table in the last two weeks. The challenge this Saturday is to get a positive result on the road at Bristolian club Dings Crusaders. Don't you just love this game?
Until the next time, stay safe and enjoy your rugby.