Exeter Chiefs academy coach Robin Cowling on his fear near Helston
Credit: JAY WILLIAMS/THE TELEGRAPH
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.
Cowling holds up a photograph of some of the homegrown stars he helped to develop (L-R Sam Hill, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Joel Conlon)
Credit: JAY WILLIAM/THE TELEGRAPH
"My earliest memories of Sam are of an outstanding talent, but raw as raw," Cowling says. "The same as Joe. They both came through quite slowly. They weren’t absolutely outstanding at youth level but they have grown into it.
"Sam has always been quick, though. His first year on a contract he missed because he ruptured his ACL playing sevens. So he missed the first 18 months. We put him on loan with Cornish Pirates after that and, not being silly, he didn’t really perform well for Pirates.
"They didn’t particularly like him (as a player), they didn’t pick him a lot and they didn’t use his talent. They asked him to take up a role that really didn’t suit him – he was nowhere near the ball, the one place you want Sam to be.
"That electric pace, to top speed from nothing… there’s no replacement for it. He has been outstanding. You need to look at what he can do – not what he can’t do. I know who I’d rather defend against: someone who’s twice as quick as me or someone who’s going to try and run through me. Sam can do things that other players haven’t got a hope in hell of doing. No one else can touch him and he should be playing No 8 for England.
"Joe (Simmonds) was another late developer. In his first year, I’m not sure he was even paid! There were real question marks over him. But then he’s just grown. He’s very unflappable; a calm lad.
"He accelerated and came through without having to go on loan. And, because he’s a back, the same physicality wasn’t needed so he was able to come through a little quicker – like Nowell and Slade, who were standout players pretty early on. At 18, anyway."
Where the Simmonds’ brothers required some watering and feeding before a late bloom, however, Cowan-Dickie, who will join Sam Simmonds on this summer’s tour of South Africa alongside team-mates Stuart Hogg and Jonny Hill, was a dahlia from the off.
"You could see at 16, 17 that Cowan-Dickie was going to play for England," Cowling adds. "He’s missing a few links, though! There’s no self-preservation at all. He has always been like that. You could go down and watch Pirates when he was a ball-boy down there, and you would see him doing things with a ball, playing at half-time, and even then you’d think: ‘Christ, that player’s going to be something.’
"He could play any position on the field – he’s that ‘rugby intelligent’. Thick as pigs— in the classroom, but you give him any sport… Cowan-Dickie could win Wimbledon! He’s outstanding. He would pick up a tennis racquet and know how to play.
"Joe and Sam are slightly slower than that. Their brains took slightly longer to know their complete roles. They didn’t realise how good they were going to be.
"I think Cowan-Dickie, on the other hand, did know how good he was. He had that ‘I’m better than everybody else’ attitude about him – even as the ball-boy he’d be beating everybody up! He was a nightmare in some ways! He was a good challenge – the sort I love."
Luke Cowan-Dickie and his Exeter team-mates celebrate after the hooker's try in the Premiership semi-final against Sale
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Although the Exeter talent factory continues to "massively" tick along, the paradoxical challenge for Cowling today is keeping up with the strength of the beast that he created. When Cowling began as an academy manager "in 1995/96", before Exeter’s academy had been established, he was in charge of the regional academy, feeding players to all clubs in Devon and Cornwall. But there was no Premiership club in the region at that time, and Cowling saw his most precocious talents depart for the bright lights of Bath or Gloucester.
Since the club won promotion in 2010, however, the demands on the level of talent that Exeter require have increased exponentially. Some players still depart, but for differing reasons.
"The only ‘problem’ now is that Rob Baxter wants young players at a higher level," Cowling says. "Would Ali Hepher (head coach) be as patient with the next Henry Slade coming through? Ali had a lot of time for Henry, but there was not as much pressure on him. As long as we didn’t get relegated, he was happy to develop players. Now, they’re getting fussier! They want them ready to play at the top of the Premiership.
"But we are very lucky down here that there’s no football; well, not real football, anyway. Nobody is passionate about football. All the mums and dads are passionate about rugby. There is Plymouth Albion, of course, but we are not fighting with them for the top athletes.
"I have some youngsters coming through now and I coached their dads! And I know they’ll be sitting down watching matches and talking to their sons. Straightaway they have an understanding of the game way ahead of their years. That’s one huge advantage."
Even in his wildest dreams, however, did Cowling, the capo dei capi of Exeter’s dominant rugby mafia, ever believe that the project on which he embarked in 2001, complete with all those challenges that he loves, would have seen such monumental growth 20 years later?
"There was always potential for a Premiership club down in this region," he says. "I just didn’t know it would be Exeter. Although, once the Cornwall academy was closed and we won the rights to host the regional academy, it quite obviously was going to be."
Cowling is too modest and deferential to realise, but Exeter’s recent successes were only “obvious” due to his influence; it is remarkable he had time for the honey and sheep.