Devoto poised for Tigers test
By Mark Stevens
Sat in the sunshine at Sandy Park this week, the buzz of excitement amongst the Exeter Chiefs squad was clearly visible.
Five months on from their last competitive fixture at home to Bath, Devon’s finest are about to resume battle in the Gallagher Premiership, starting with this weekend’s visit of Leicester Tigers.
One man relishing the chance to get things going again is centre Ollie Devoto, who having had the chance to recover from the rigours of top-flight battle earlier in the season, admits he is now ‘chomping at the bit’ as the Chiefs look to attack on two major fronts.
“It’s been different,” says Devoto, when quizzed on lockdown life. “It was enjoyable for the first few weeks especially. It was nice to kind of switch off from things and just allow your body to recover a bit. The more it went on, though, the more you got that feeling of wanting to get back playing and being around the boys.
“Luckily, the club facilitated all of us by giving us equipment to take home from the gym and it allowed us to keep training. It was amazing when we did eventually come back in to see how many of the boys had kept themselves in good nick. It meant we were able to hit the ground running.”
With the Chiefs having diligently worked their way through the various return to training stages, the time has now come for Devoto and his team-mates to up the ante and resume their domestic and European campaigns.
Five points clear at the top of the Premiership from next-best Sale Sharks, plus a Champions Cup quarter-final against Northampton Saints to contend with next month, the 26-year-old knows the next three months are going to be all-action in the club’s quest for honours.
“I think my girlfriend is looking forward to me playing again and just getting out of her hair,” he jokes. “Chatting with the boys, I think we’re all itching to go and can’t wait to start playing. It’s been a decent break for all of us, but now is where we have to start again.
“It’s going to be different, of course it is, but as a group we have to look at these next ten weeks in our lives as a big period and where we can achieve something special if we’re willing to throw everything into it.”
Devoto was part of Exeter’s title-winning side of 2017 against Wasps and knows all too well what it takes to claim English rugby’s top prize, having narrowly missed out on winning it again last season at Twickenham against Saracens.
“You crave those special moments,” said the England international. “I’ve experienced winning the title and I’ve experienced losing it as well and I know the feelings from both. Last year still hurts and it’s not until you get unto something like lockdown that you start to reflect on things like that. Coming back now, it is exciting because we all know there is so much for us to play for.”
Standing in the way of Devoto first up will be a much-changed Leicester Tigers outfit. Not only have they seen 26 players depart during the recent break, but they have a new man at the helm with Steve Borthwick taking over as the club’s new head coach.
The Tigers game kicks-off a testing first month back for the Chiefs, who follow that opening game with away days at Sale Sharks and Bristol Bears, before rounding the month off with a home game against Worcester Warriors.
“It’s a tough start for sure,” admitted Devoto. “Leicester will be all fired up because they’ve got Steve as their new coach. I know from working with him in England camps how good a coach he is - and following that we’ve got equally tough games away to Sale and Bristol.
“Having two games a week at times is going to challenging, but it’s going to be the same for all of us. All we can do is make sure we’re ready for each game, prepare as well as we can, and just look to attack the season as we did previously.”
Sadly, the Chiefs won’t have their legion of fans’ there to provide some vocal back-up - and Devoto says it will be strange playing at a quiet Sandy Park.
“I think as a team we tend to live a little bit off the support of the crowd,” he said. “For me, personally, I love that little period just as we finish the warm-up where we run in front of the East Terrace. That little lap kind of fuels you for the game and gets you ready for things. Yes, it will be strange not having the fans there, so it will be up to us to find a way of getting ourselves ready for the game ahead.”