'It's just another step of something we are getting right within our partnership with Exeter University'

Current BUCS Super Rugby champions Exeter University are setting the tone in the student game this season
©Izzy Poles/BUCS

Premiership teams around the country have always made use of the talent on show in the university system, with the likes of Alex Dombrandt, Tom Pearson and Seb Negri some of the most high-profile beneficiaries of this route to professionalism.

However, no partnership has arguably seen as much success as the one between Exeter University and the Exeter Chiefs.

For some years now, the Devonian institution has produced a constant conveyor belt of talented players who have gone on to feature for their Premiership neighbours.

This season, however, the partnership seems to have found a new level.

Exeter Chiefs have mostly fielded an inexperienced team - featuring numerous university students - and have performed impressively to find themselves fourth in the Premiership table and through to the Round of 16 of the Champions Cup with a home tie.

And stand-out performances from students Ross Vintcent, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Dafyyd Jenkins have all seen them rewarded with international call-ups for the Six Nations, whilst the likes of Ben Hammersley and Zack Wimbush have also shown their quality in a Chiefs shirt this season.

The university side has benefited equally from the partnership, with many of them involved in the wider Chiefs set-up. Having won the BUCS Super Rugby Championship title two years in a row, Exeter University seem to be only getting better, and they are currently 10 points clear at the top of the BSR table after 10 wins out of a possible 11.

And last week’s ‘Town vs Gown’ fixture between the Chiefs and the university was an innovative idea from both sides and the first time something like this has been done while once again highlighting their flourishing relationship.

The Chiefs fielded a more inexperienced line-up, many of whom are current students or alumni of the university. One name that stood out on the teamsheet was Paul Brown, a winger who has been prolific in university rugby for Durham for a number of years, but is now hoping to make a name for himself in Devon.

The ‘Gown’ side was at full strength in preparation for the second half of the BUCS Super Rugby season [which resumes this Wednesday] and, unsurprisingly, it was a matchday squad that featured a number of players who are involved with the Chiefs set up. With an impressive crowd of over 3,000 spectators, it was a chance to showcase the success of the partnership to a much wider audience.

Exeter University’s head of men’s rugby, Gareth Elliott, spoke highly to TRU about the relationship, and it is one he knows well having been involved with the Chiefs for a few years prior to his current role.

“The huge benefit of having a strong partnership with Exeter Chiefs is the quality of coaching, sport science, facilities, and opportunities it gives the players,” said Elliott.

“It gives the players a level to aspire to and a motivation to reach the next level of the game which several have done so far this season as you have seen in European rugby.

“It's a proud tradition for this university rugby club to develop players that go onto Premiership, European, and international honours and one that we see continuing.”

As for the game itself, it was a brilliant display of rugby in front of a noisy Sandy Park crowd - one that contained a large contingent of both students and Chiefs fans.

The first 25 minutes was ruthless from the Exeter Chiefs, with young gun Noah Fenton scoring a brace. Tries from former Leinster man Jack Dunne and current Exeter student Wimbush raced the Premiership side out to a 24-0 lead.

Despite the scoreline, the university continued to carry hard in attack and front up in defence, and their resilience paid off as a well-worked move from the backs led to Benjy Joseland touching down under the posts to take the score to 24-7 at half time.

Fenton’s dancing feet persisted in the second half as he completed his hat trick straight after the break. His opposite number, Kofi Barton-Byfield [who scored in last year’s BSR final], then showed off his speed to collect a kick from Jake Murray and finish acrobatically in the corner, earning the uni their second try of the evening.

Chiefs’ Frankie Nowell and Uni’s Will Smears exchanged tries of their own before Hallam Chapman finished off the scoring, with the game ending 43-21 in favour of the Exeter Chiefs.

Although the Chiefs came out on top, it was certainly a competitive fixture, and when asked by TRU how impressed he was by the performances of both sides, Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter had plenty of positive things to say.

“On the whole, it worked very very well for us. Watching Noah Fenton scoot around like he did, a guy who is only going to be able to go to university next academic year, was fantastic. We saw what some of our lads could do particularly in the backline for Exeter University, which kind of shows how that (the partnership) works.”

“I was quite impressed with a couple of the University boys, how they dug in there. I thought Louie Gulley at hooker went very very well, showing a hell of a lot of energy.

“A couple of the Uni back row guys carried very well. Alfie Bell ran a good lineout which is important as he is going to be featuring in our senior group here very shortly I would imagine.

“You know, it was a really good opportunity for players to get good game time in a slightly different environment and, for me, it's just another step of something we are getting right within our partnership with Exeter University.”

There is a definite feel-good atmosphere around the Exeter Chiefs this season, and Baxter believes this fixture has only added to that.

“It was as big a crowd as we can get here on a Monday night - plenty of noise, plenty of food and drink being sold, great atmosphere and both teams got out of it what they wanted, and no major injuries.

“It was a real good night for the city and something that no doubt we will look to do now on an annual basis and make it an even bigger fixture if we can because there is clearly an appetite for it and it was clearly a good fixture for both sides.”

With BUCS Super Rugby often referred to as “the best league in the land”, university rugby undeniably deserves a bigger appetite towards it. The matches being played are fast-paced and high-scoring, with the ball-in-play time usually well over 40 minutes.

As league leaders, there is no better advert for the format than Exeter University and with last week’s match being attended by many spectators that may be unfamiliar with the student game, Elliott hopes it may have attracted some much-deserved attention towards it.

“The benefit of the game for us was to play a high level of opposition which gave us a chance to test our game under pressure. The added benefit was giving the team a great platform to express themselves on a Premiership ground in front of a great crowd.

“Hopefully people will be more drawn to supporting Exeter University Rugby on a Wednesday in BUCS Super Rugby and on Saturday in the National Leagues“.

Notably, the benefit of evenings like this are felt beyond just the players on the pitch and speaking after the game to Exeter University’s club captain and first-team prop Chris Freeman, he emphasised the importance of the event to the club as a whole.

“These kinds of matches provide us with loads of learnings which we can take into future games. In terms of the club, these are unreal nights for members to pull together and celebrate at an occasion. The crowd was once again unbelievably loud and it really helps when you play.”

Twice a year the university side play BSR fixtures at Sandy Park too [with one taking place on February 14th v Cardiff], and they sell thousands of tickets each time, emphasising how their success on the pitch has continued to pay dividends off it.

The incredible support they were met with in last week’s game is further proof that the club as a whole just seems to be getting things right.

The ‘Town vs Gown’ match was undeniably a great evening for all involved, and it was a perfect example of the exemplary partnership between Exeter Chiefs and Exeter University while the synergy which the Chiefs' women's side has with the university also continues to blossom.

With both teams gaining so much success from the relationship, it is one that will likely continue to produce more stars and benefit the university and the top level of the game as a whole.

University Fixtures

BUCS Super Rugby: Nottingham v Swansea, Bath vs Leeds Beckett, Hartpury v Cardiff, Durham vs Cardiff Met, Loughborough v Exeter

Women's National League: Exeter v Hartpury, Durham v Louhgborough