Exeter Chiefs' 'incredible journey' to Heineken Cup

Exeter lost at Clermont Auvergne last week

Three years ago Exeter had just won away at Rotherham in the inaugural season of the RFU Championship.

They were chasing newly relegated side Bristol with the dream of reaching the promised land of English rugby's top flight.

Fast-forward 1,096 days and Exeter are preparing to face Heineken Cup champions Leinster at Sandy Park.

It is a journey that has been almost unmatched in the recent history of English rugby, with the Devon side stepping up to every challenge put in their way.

Fly-half Gareth Steenson kicked 24 of the 29 points Exeter scored in their Championship play-off second leg win over Bristol back in 2010 which saw them reach the Premiership, in the process earning the opportunity to win a place at European rugby's top table.

"It's been an incredible journey," said the 28-year-old, who joined the club from the Cornish Pirates in 2008 having won junior international honours back home in Ireland.

"When I first arrived here it was always the ambition to get to the next level.

"Whenever we got to the next level, like winning the Championship, the aim was then to get into the Amlin [Challenge Cup], and to push on again to try and get into Europe's premier competition which we've done now."

Exeter's team is one which has relatively few superstars in it.

Of the side which last week only two players, home-grown Tom Johnson and Argentine Gonzalo Camacho, had won an international cap, with another, Australia lock Dean Mumm, on the bench.

Furthermore, 12 of that side had played for the Chiefs in the second tier of English rugby.

Only Camacho, centre Jason Shoemark and full-back Luke Arscott have joined since that win over Bristol, and Arscott was on the losing side that night in May 2010.

"Every year we keep facing these new challenges," continued hooker Neil Clark.

"For us to bring sides like Clermont Auvergne and Leinster down to Devon is a dream come true.

Clark, 33, is a veteran campaigner who left Exeter in 2003 to chase his dream of Premiership rugby with Bristol, before moving on to Bath.

"Without having international recognition it's probably the highest honour you can have as a rugby player," said Clark, who finally got his chance in the Heineken Cup as a replacement in Exeter's third game of the campaign, and their first win, against Scarlets.

"Two or three years ago who would have thought you'd have Leinster coming down to Sandy Park?

"Now it's a reality and it's a chance we're looking forward to."

So will Exeter do the unthinkable and get a win that will send the reigning champions tumbling out of the Heineken Cup at the group stages?

"If we can come down here and put in a performance that we're proud of and that we know we're capable of doing, there's no reason why we can't come away with a win," Clark added.

"It's only another 15 blokes on the pitch."