ony Rowe has made a fortune out of knowing an opportunity when he sees it.
So, when councillors awarded the Portsmouth-born businessman the freedom of the City of Exeter in late-summer of 2015 his immediate instinct was to act on the section of the small print on his fancy new certificate that permitted him to drive sheep through the Devon streets.
The timing was bang on.
Rowe is chairman of the Exeter Chiefs and the man who instigated one of the most remarkable rags to riches sporting stories of the last 20 years. With their Sandy Park stadium playing host to two matches in the upcoming World Cup, he made the trek up High Street with his livestock bedecked in the colours of the three countries due to play there.
It was a stunt picked up by the BBC among others and perfectly in keeping with a 68-year old, whose colourful CV, if he ever needed one, would include an eight-year stint in the Royal Navy, a successful time spent as a semi-professional racing boat driver and a string of business ventures that have left him well in the black.
It was 1988 when he got involved with the Chiefs. They were an amateur club then, but one regretting the recent step up to the semi-pro game in which they were struggling. Rowe didn’t think they belonged there either. His ambitions were far loftier and he has since transformed a sleepy West Country outfit into one that has become a market leader on and off the park.
The Chiefs will pitch up in Dublin tomorrow for their second Champions Cup joust with Leinster inside six days and, while the hosts at the Aviva Stadium are rightly held up as a smoothly run machine, it is the visitors to whom so many Irish clubs of all stripes should look for inspiration and instruction.
Last Sunday’s game in Exeter was barely 20 minutes old when the heavens opened for a spell and what should have been obvious suddenly dawned: Spectators on all four sides of the 12,000 or so capacity ground, whether seated or standing, were sheltered from the rain by the roofs.
A basic consideration, you would think, but a succession of GAA county boards, in particular, seem to have overlooked just that in the last few decades as millions of euro was poured into the bricks and mortar of countless grounds. It’s worth noting that Exeter is in a part of England where they receive an average of 35 fewer days of rainfall a year than Ireland’s east coast, or 110 fewer than on the Wild Atlantic Way.
That’s Exeter: Ambition tailored with common sense. The club has never been asked to run before it could walk and that has fashioned an inexorable rise: From promotion to the Aviva Premiership in 2010 through to league champions last May. European glory is the next, logical step and one they fully intend to take.
“It will happen,” Rowe told Devon Live earlier this year. “We’re not in a big hurry, we’ve got lots of time, because we are commercially sound and successful, so there’s no pressure. We have a great team and great coaches, so great things will happen.”
The same patience is apparent in their stadium. Having made the move from their old County Ground, the Chiefs have built the capacity and capabilities of Sandy Park gradually. The goal is to reach a point where they can cater for 20,600 people, but it is about much more than the mere numbers.
When its all done they will boast three grandstands, a 1,000-seater auditorium, conference and banqueting facilities and an on-site hotel. The last of those projects is the next piece of the jigsaw to be fitted into place for a club that prides itself on the experience it offers punters, regardless of the day or purpose of their visit.
The matchday experience is a source of particular pride.
Part of the sales pitch for Ireland’s 2023 Rugby World Cup bid was the proximity of the grounds to various city or town centres, but yet how central are many of those venues to the lifeblood of their local communities on those rare days when the local county team are not in action?
Sandy Park is located out on the shoulder of the M5 motorway, a good 6km away from Exeter’s centre. There isn’t a pub or a restaurant to be seen for miles — until their own hotel has its ribbon cut — and yet proof of the club’s centrality to the city and the region can be found on the façade of the city’s venerable cathedral.
When four new stone carvings were required to adorn the East Gable, the decision was made to commission a poppy to symbolise those killed in the two World Wars, a crown to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, an owl for the city itself and the Exeter Chiefs club emblem.
High praise, indeed.