Sandy Park has staged some historic matches in recent years, and none more significant than last Saturday, when Exeter Chiefs Women secured a maiden Premier 15s victory.
Tries from Lottie Holland, Emily Tuttosi and Laura Delgado helped secure a 19-7 win against Worcester Warriors, which came just 14 months after the team was launched.
Victory was a rich reward for the work put in by head coach Susie Appleby and assistant Amy Garnett since it was confirmed that Exeter would form a women’s team last September.
At that time, Exeter’s place in Premier 15s was not assured, while a sense of loyalty ensured that Appleby remained with Gloucester-Hartpury — the club she had guided on its own journey from inception to the top division — until January.
However, both Appleby and Garnett had been assured that Exeter were paying more than mere “lip service” to the new team, and the pull of working with a club the size of Chiefs proved strong.
“Their ambition has no limits, and they want to see the women's programme as successful as the men’s,” Appleby, who won 65 caps for England, told World Rugby.
“From the off, they said to me, ‘What do you need first and foremost?’ And I said, ‘Well, alongside myself and Amy, we need a full-time strength and conditioning coach and a full-time physio. Without them, we're not going to get anywhere’.
“And, they did it straight away. So again, it was putting their money where their mouth is.”
‘The most difficult thing I’ve ever done’
Garnett, the first English woman to play 100 tests, had only recently moved to the south-west when appointed by Exeter but guided the club through its initial fixtures.
However, the workload intensified for both her and Appleby in April, when the Rugby Football Union (RFU) confirmed the club’s place in the Premier 15s, for the next three years at least.
A coaching ticket containing the knowledge and expertise of Appleby and Garnett is always likely to be appealing to prospective players, but the COVID-19 pandemic presented a number of challenges.
Unable to physically show potential recruits around the club’s facilities, Appleby and Garnett relied on video conferencing software to make their pitch.
“It's the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life, honestly,” Appleby said of building a team in a pandemic.
“Up until we were accepted, lots of phone calls, lots of selling [players] the dream that wasn't real yet. Because we didn't even know we were going to get in.
“And then after April, when we were accepted, then it was real. So then I could still sell a product, but no one could come and see it because of the pandemic.
“So, we're selling something that I wholeheartedly believed in, but players then have to trust what you're saying to them.”
Developing local talent
It proved a successful pitch in the international market, with Olivia DeMerchant, Patricia Garcia, Linde van der Velden and Kate Zackary among the stars who have signed on for this season.
A lengthy visa process and quarantine requirements, however, meant that the squad was not fully assembled until after the club’s maiden Premier 15s campaign had started.
It is perhaps fitting that two of the team’s tries on Saturday were scored by players brought in from overseas, while USA international Gabby Cantorna added a brace of conversions.
But, as the club grows there is a real drive to unearth and nurture local talent, as the men’s team has done with Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade, among others.
“Kayleigh Armstrong, who's from Exmouth, her dad used to play at the Chiefs, and she said she never dreamt in her lifetime that it would be a possibility that there'd be a Chiefs women's team,” Garnett told World Rugby.
“Rugby's so huge down here. The more we can get out on the media, get our games streamed [so] young women in the area can watch us and see us as role models. Hopefully then, that will be their aspiration to go forward and play for the Chiefs.”
To that end, the club took on seven female apprentices ahead of the season, through a programme run in conjunction with Exeter College.
A centre of excellence, meanwhile, is currently “taking shape” over Zoom, with the hope that physical sessions can begin in the new year.
“We're a year into what we started planning and already we're bearing really good fruits from it,” Appleby added.
“The young players in Devon and Cornwall, who we have certainly not known about, and haven't had an opportunity to play locally, they’ve had to trot up the road to Bristol.
“Now they can stay, hopefully develop and play and never leave the counties.”
As the Chiefs develop and evolve, it is hoped that the club will become ever more inclusive, with the men’s and women’s teams sharing facilities, resources and knowledge.
COVID-19 restrictions have limited contact time between the two groups, but men’s coaches Rob Hunter and Ricky Pellow have both helped Appleby and Garnett with sessions this season.
Men’s defence coach Julian Salvi, meanwhile, has set the women a target of becoming the meanest defence in the Premier 15s.
Garnett admits that both her and Appleby are “very competitive” but they are also realistic, and understand that it might take time before Exeter are challenging their former club, Saracens, or Harlequins at the top of the Premier 15s table.
“It's just unbelievable what we could achieve because of the support of the club,” Appleby said.
“If you have the infrastructure — I'm not just talking about the on-field stuff, I'm talking about the upstairs support with the marketing teams. I'm talking about the fact that they unfurloughed a chef so we could feed our full-time players.
“That's what makes the players and the club who it is.”