Exeter Chiefs: Why are so many Australian players deciding to move to Sandy Park?

By Brent PilnickBBC Sport
Greg Holmes, Lachie Turner and Dave Dennis
Greg Holmes (left) and Dave Dennis (right) will join Lachie Turner at Exeter this summer

The village of Exeter lies 89 miles south-west of Sydney and according to the most recent census had 831 inhabitants.

Meanwhile, 10,713 miles away the Australian population is growing at Sandy Park, home of Exeter Chiefs.

Prop Greg Holmes and back-row Dave Dennis have committed to joining the club for next season, while winger Lachie Turner made the move last month.

The Chiefs could have as many as eight Aussies in the squad next season - so why are so many players from down under being lured to the Devon club?

'Culture of honesty'

Rob Baxter
Rob Baxter took over as Exeter head coach in 2009

"The weather" was the reason former international Turner jokingly gave to BBC Sport last month as his reason for making the move.

But the former Toulon, Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs back's main reason became clear shortly afterwards - and it has nothing to do with long romantic walks on Dartmoor.

"For me the decision was easy after five minutes of speaking to Rob Baxter.

"He gives his philosophies and the way he runs the club and the important things that he puts a lot of emphasis behind," said Turner.

"It's about working hard, but also enjoying yourself. I don't think you can be successful in anything unless you enjoy what you're doing, and that's something they really strive for here."

Exeter's Australian contingent
Lachie Turner (utility back)Mitch Lees (second-row)
Alec Hepburn (prop)Ben White (back-row)
Ollie Atkins (second-row)Greg Holmes (prop, joining summer 2016)
Julian Salvi (flanker)Dave Dennis (back-row, joining summer 2016)

The Chiefs head coach has been in charge since the summer of 2009, guiding them to an unlikely win over Bristol in the inaugural Championship play-off final in 2010 and then gradually building a side that this season seems nailed-on for a first-ever place in the play-offs and have also made the last eight of the Champions Cup.

Baxter's first Exeter side was packed with good Championship players who had a point to prove, but as the seasons have worn on, more and more experience has been brought to the club.

England's Geoff Parling became the first British and Irish Lion to don an Exeter jersey, while other international players such as Tom James, Ceri Sweeney and Sireli Naqelevuki have all raised standards.

"The culture here is based on honesty and trustworthiness," said another Aussie, Julian Salvi, after he joined the club last summer.

A former Wallaby youth player he became the latest in a line of high-class back-row forwards to leave the traditional powerhouse of Leicester for the Chiefs - following Parling and Thomas Waldrom, who has had a new lease of life at the back of the Exeter scrum and was the league's top try-scorer last season.

"You look from where they've come five or six years ago, from a Championship team they've made it to the Premiership," Salvi added.

"Now they've gone from that side to being a real top-six quality contender and that's one of the things that attracted me to the place, the fact that it is a team on the rise and wanting to be there or thereabouts in the top four and pushing for championships."

Recruiter in chief

Dean Mumm lifts the LV= Cup
Dean Mumm led Exeter to victory in the 2014 LV= Cup final

In 2012, Exeter made arguably the biggest signing in their history when Australia lock Dean Mumm left the Waratahs for Sandy Park.

Three years later he left, having led the club to the first silverware in their 143-year history as they won the 2013 LV= Cup.

"He's a pretty a honest guy and he couldn't speak highly enough of his time at Exeter," Dennis told BBC Sport.

"I've know Dean for a decade now, so I take his word for it. He gave me a few little insights around living over there and he also talked about how the club operates."

His sentiments were echoed by another of Mumm's former Waratahs' teammates Turner, who said: "Dean Mumm is a very close friend of mine from back home.

"The way he speaks about the club I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in."

International recognition

Exeter's reputation has grown hugely in the last few years.

As well as homegrown players such as Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie getting England call-ups, time at Exeter has seen international recalls for Wales winger Tom James, and most famously Dean Mumm being recalled to the Australia side and starting the 2015 World Cup final.

"It was a great achievement from Dean to come back and I definitely thought he developed as a player," says Dennis.

Mitch Lees
English-qualified Australian Mitch Lees was tipped for and England call-up before injuring his arm in January

"I won't be signing off or closing any doors on an opportunity, but I do really want to get over to Exeter and contribute to the club and really rest myself in a foreign environment.

"If I end up seeing my career out overseas and never making it back to Australia, so be it, I can be happy with that."

Head coach Baxter says the fact that players are starting to get recognised at the Chiefs - there was talk that Australian-born Mitch Lees could be involved with England before he sustained an injury on New Year's Day - is a huge incentive for potential signings.

"If you're a player and you're playing in Australia and you see a player like Dean Mumm who'd perhaps dropped out of the international picture, come to Exeter and three years later play in the World Cup final, you're going to think there's something pretty attractive there, not just in the lifestyle way, but also that we can help them improve themselves as rugby players," he explained.

"The important thing for me when we sign a new player is that there's a genuine feeling that we can improve them as a rugby player and that the player wants to improve as a rugby player.

"I think that's what we've got with the signings we've made. There is a bit of a connection that they're Australian, but the truth is that the connection is they seem to be similar characters."

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