There is a mystical quirkiness, a proud irregularity, to Exeter Chiefs that is often difficult to define. From their location in the jutting outcrop of the South West peninsula, to their unprecedented rise to the top of English rugby; from the controversy surrounding their Chiefs moniker, to some unexpected medical stances, love them or hate them, the club’s identity, personality and idiosyncrasies are as rich as cream tea. Anodyne, they are not. ?
It is entirely fitting, therefore, that one of the fundamental orchestrators behind the Chiefs’ phenomenal rise from English rugby’s second tier to the European elite is a 77-year-old Cornish sheep farmer whose name you might never have heard of. That man is Robin Cowling, a former Gloucester and Leicester prop, and manager of the Chiefs’ academy from its inception in 2001 until 2018.
Cowling keeps a low profile on his farm where, alongside making Cornish honey for his son’s butcher’s shop in London, he continues to run one of Exeter’s academies in Truro. While Cowling’s profile might be discreet and his fame untapped, his glittering achievements with rugby in the South West are notorious.?
Born to a Gloucester mother and a Durham father during the Second World War, Cowling is responsible for the unearthing of treasures such as Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and the Simmonds brothers. Some roll-call.
”My role now is assistant academy manager – I thought it was time to let someone else have a go!,” Cowling tells Telegraph Sport as his former mentees prepare for their sixth successive Premiership final, against Harlequins on Saturday.
”I went to see Rob Baxter (director of rugby) and Tony Rowe (chairman) and they said: ‘You’re not retiring!’ I thought: ‘Well, all right, I’ll carry on doing a bit then!’
”It’s very much an advisory role – I’m 77 for goodness sake – so I consult a bit and mentor some of the other coaches. But I still love it! Rob Gibson took over from me – he gets all the hassle and I can do all the bits I like doing.”
To paint a clearer picture of Cowling’s pre-eminence in the establishment of the Chiefs’ dynasty, Baxter is the man with the brush and easel. Alongside Rowe, Cowling was responsible for the appointment of Baxter as head coach in 2009. Would it be an exaggeration to say, without the 77-year-old, that Exeter would not have climbed to such a vertiginous podium in European rugby? ?
”That wouldn’t be an exaggeration at all,” comes Baxter’s reply. “I have a huge amount of time for Robin and I have a massive amount of respect for him. You cannot say that he has not been a fundamental part of the success of the club.”
Cowling has invested significantly into youth rugby in Devon and Cornwall without a single scratch of egoism or superficiality. He remembers the trajectory of each and every one of his apprentices; their beginnings, their backgrounds, their nascent flaws and strengths, and their development. The Simmonds’ brothers – Joe and Sam – for instance, “sons of a Teignmouth fisherman”, he says, were late developers.