Exeter Rugby Club was founded in 1871. The club played its first match in 1873 against St. Luke's College. In 1890, they won the Devon Cup. In 1905, Exeter Rugby Club hosted the first match played by the New Zealand national rugby union team on English soil and in the Northern Hemisphere at the County Ground between New Zealand and the Devon County XV. It was from that game, that New Zealand became known as the "All Blacks".
When league rugby started, Exeter were initially placed in the Devon leagues. In the 1990s, Exeter Rugby Club turned semi-professional and changed their name from Exeter Rugby Club to Exeter Chiefs after previously being referred to as the Chiefs in the 1930s. Often their teams at the time were composed of members and former members of the British Army. In 1993 and 1995, they reached the quarter finals of the Pilkington Cup before being knocked out by English Premiership opponents Leicester Tigers and London Wasps respectively. In 1997, Exeter were promoted into the Allied Dunbar Premiership Two for the first time from National League 1. They regularly finished in the top half of the table. In 2005, Exeter finished second in the league, missing out on promotion by four points behind Bristol Rugby. The next season, they moved from the County Ground to Sandy Park due to a need for modern facilities that included corporate hospitality. In 2008 they again finished in second place and again missed out on promotion by finishing behind Northampton Saints. The same situation happened the next season when Exeter finished behind Leeds Carnegie. In 2009, National Division One was reorganized into the RFU Championship with playoffs. During the regular league season, Exeter finished second behind Bristol. In the playoffs, they defeated Bedford Blues and Nottingham R.F.C. before facing Bristol in the two legged final. Exeter won 9-6 in the first leg at Sandy Park and then won 29-10 at Bristol's Memorial Stadium in the second leg to win promotion to the Aviva Premiership for the very first time.
In their first season in the Aviva Premiership, they finished eighth despite a two point deduction and a £5,000 fine for fielding too many overseas players during their match against Leeds Carnegie at Headingley Stadium. They also made their debut in the European Challenge Cup, making their way to the quarter finals where they lost to Stade Français. In the next season, they finished fifth in the Aviva Premiership which permitted them to play in the Heineken Cup for the first time. In their first season in the Heineken Cup, they were drawn against French Clermont Auvergne, Irish Leinster Rugby and Welsh Scarlets in the group stage. They finished the group third with nine points ahead of Scarlets. Also in 2013, they, along with Saracens, were the only rugby club to hold a minutes silence before their game against London Irish to remember the death of former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher. In 2014, Exeter Chiefs won their first major rugby trophy after they defeated Northampton Saints in the Anglo-Welsh Cup 15-8 at Sandy Park.
Exeter play their home games at Sandy Park, which is located on the outskirts of the city. The club moved from their previous home, the County Ground, in 2006 having played there regularly since 1905. In 2002, Exeter Chiefs started looking for a new stadium because they felt the County Ground was insufficient for growth. Despite concerns of opposition from traditionalists within the club, the motion to move was passed by 99% of the attendees at Exeter's Annual General Meeting. Sandy Park can currently accommodate 12,600 spectators, however, there are plans to increase this capacity to 20,600 with phase one having begun in early 2014. These plans came about because of a requirement for later stages of European matches to be played at grounds with a capacity of at least 20,000.