Working out how to win without clout or cash

James Short of Exeter gets past Worcesters defence
James Short of Exeter gets past Worcesters defence
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Two clubs have elbowed their way centre stage this season, one in the Guinness Pro12 and the other in England’s Aviva Premiership. Neither of them have much in the way of pedigree and even fewer of the financial resources that have so distorted the world market in recent years. One club played on a field inside the local dog track a decade ago while the other was almost wound up by the IRFU.

Now both Exeter Chiefs and Connacht Rugby top their respective leagues (as of Friday evening) although that may not hold true today given that both faced tough ties yesterday, against Leinster and Saracens respectively. These two teams, unfashionable and unfancied, have re-written the book on how to succeed in the modern age. (Bordeaux are the French example, with an expansive game that has them in the play-off places despite spending approximately €10 million less than the usual suspects).

As of Friday night the two teams shared so many statistical similarities that they could have been separated at birth:

P W D L Pts for Ts for B

Connacht 17 12 0 5 420 49 11

Exeter 17 12 0 5 422 48 11

That tries/bonus points offer the first clues behind the success of these two teams, both are positive on the park, they like to play with the ball in hand. And both teams owed their position at the top of their respective leagues to superior bonus points and, at least in part, to last year’s World Cup to which we’ll return.

We are currently in the Year of the Monkey, at least according to the Chinese calendar, but it feels like it should be the Year of the (under) Dog instead. The unheralded clubs that are leading the charge in rugby are mirrored in the round ball game where every neutral in the country is praying that Leicester City can topple the big-spending, bloated and out-of-touch clubs that usually dominate the papers’ back pages.

Connacht are the league’s habitual whipping boys, or were until the Italians joined the Pro12, and have never previously finished above the seventh place they managed last season. They should make the end of season play-offs for the first time.

Exeter Chiefs achieved what many have tried and failed to do, gain promotion from England’s Championship and make it stick, finishing a creditable eighth in their first season 2011-12. Since then they have developed Sandy Park into a lucrative venue and have plans to raise the capacity from 12,200 to 20,000. Exeter have posted an operating profit every year in the Premiership and their players’ salary bill is well below most rivals as forwards’ coach, former Scotland ‘A’ lock, Rob Hunter, pictured above, explains.

“We are under the cap,” says Hunter who previously coached England’s U20s side, “but that is not to say we don’t have good players, we have lots of good players. We have a mix of academy boys, because we are based in a very strong rugby region, and some older heads. We still have two players from our Championship days, Gareth Steenson and Hayden Thomas, who are hugely important to this club, setting the agenda both on and off the field.

“We try to keep constant in what we do. So following a big win we will enjoy a couple of beers and after a loss we’ll enjoy a couple of beers. We try to avoid the highs and lows that come with professional sport and just enjoy the moment.

“We make a big point of winning what we call the ‘no talent battle’. It takes no talent to get off the floor and get yourself into the defensive line… so we try to win that battle. There are lots of things in rugby that don’t need talent, so we win those battles.

“We work very hard but work alone doesn’t win matches. You do need talent, which we have been adding every year, just as talent on it’s own won’t win anything, you need the work ethic as well. It’s getting the right balance.”

For these two league leaders the team ethos and work ethic is enhanced by two coaches, Rob Baxter and Pat Lam, pictured right, who earn their corn. Both teams take to the field knowing exactly what they are trying to do as Connacht proved early this month.

Everything good about the Galway men was on display at Murrayfield at the start of March when they kyboshed Edinburgh. For the first 40 minutes there was only one team on the field. Connacht knew exactly what they were about and they executed their expansive game plan at pace and with a minimum of mistakes. They led 21-5 at the break before running out 28-23 winners. In that first half Edinburgh looked like a pub team who had met in the car park five minutes before kick off.

Neither of these clubs is awash with money. Exact figures are hard to come by but one Irish journalist guestimated Connacht’s playing budget between £3-£3.5 million, well below the Scottish pro-teams. They boast some fine players, five of whom were on the field at the end of the recent Ireland-Italy match, but the majority are journeymen who share a willingness to roll their sleeves up and a deep-seated desire to prove the naysayers wrong.

Exeter too are more Scrooge than spendthrift, well inside the Aviva’s £5.1 million salary cap, a smaller spend than their wealthy rivals like Bath and Saracens and that presumes every club adheres to the rules, which no-one even pretends to believe. Admittedly the Chiefs boast high-profile England winger Jack Nowell and Italy’s second best player Michele Campagnaro but most of their talent has either come through their academy, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie or, in the case of Geoff Parling and Thomas Waldrom, were unwanted by wealthier clubs like Leicester Tigers.

And still it’s impossible to ignore the influence of last year’s World Cup on events. Connacht had just two players in Ireland’s squad and Exeter had three away with England and another three elsewhere, unlike this weekend’s opponents. Leinster provided 19 players to Ireland while Saracens provided 16 players to six different nations. Connacht and Exeter lost just one game each while the opposition were shorn of their big stars and, when they did crawl back to their clubs, many were spent both in body and spirit. Perhaps next season we will be able to measure the World Cup effect on the current standings.

The top tier European clubs are engaged in an arms race, bidding against each other for the biggest, strongest and fastest players on the planet, but most clubs simply can’t compete. Perhaps they don’t have to.

The game owes a debt of gratitude to Connacht and Exeter, two champions of the disadvantaged, who have proved that there is another route to success. Utilising a combination of good coaching, tight teamwork and buckets of sweat, it is possible to compete without throwing pots of money at any and every problem that pops up.

The excellence of Connacht and Exeter on limited means offers a telling rebuke to any coach or club that blames their lowly league placing on a lack of financial resources.