Hard work starts here, says Armand
By Mark Stevens
It’s the necessary evil for every professional athlete around the world, but pre-season training remains an integral part of preparing a sportsman or woman for the rigours of a new campaign ahead.
Five weeks after trooping off the field at Twickenham following Gallagher Premiership Final heartache to Saracens once again, Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter will on Monday welcome back the majority of his first-team squad for what is the start point of the 2019/20 season.
A three-day bonding trip overseas will kick-off their pre-season programme, after which it will be full steam ahead for the Devonians as they prepare their countdown to the new season, which this year will begin on the weekend of September 21 with the first of four rounds in the Premiership Rugby Cup.
In what is Exeter’s 10th year in the top flight, Baxter and his team will use the Premiership Rugby Cup as the chance to build-up for the new league season, which gets underway on the weekend of October 19.
The top-flight fixtures are due to be announced next Wednesday (July 10) – and will allow Baxter and his players to immediately focus their thoughts on the new campaign, which they hope will lead them back to the capital for a fifth successive season next June.
One man determined to play his part for the Chiefs is long-serving forward Don Armand, who spoke about the excitement that is already building amongst the playing group.
“Pre-season you try and put it off for as long as possible, but you know it’s always coming in the end,” he said. “Now it’s here, I think all of us are excited about getting back together and looking to see how we can drive things forward again this season.”
For the third time in four years, the Chiefs were picked off in the end of season showpiece by rivals Saracens, who fought back from 11 points down in the final quarter to take the title 37-34 and add it to their Heineken Champions Cup crown they landed just weeks earlier.
Again, it was another tough pill for the Chiefs to swallow, but Armand believes the narrow loss will provide the perfect spur ahead of the new season.
“It will be a driver for us, but a completely different one to say the year before,” added the England international. “Of course, it would have been nice to be sat here saying we won the Premiership and that we’re champions again, but it wasn’t meant to be and you have praise Saracens for the way they fought back.
“Like us, they are a side that each year have to find a driver to motivate them to build on what they’ve done the year before. The success they’ve achieved in recent seasons shows they are clearly getting that right, but I don’t think we’re a million miles off it either.
“Last season was another step on the ladder we have to climb. I’d like to think we are nearly at the top now – where we will see the benefits and get some more silverware – but even though it didn’t quite happen for us last season, it doesn’t mean we can’t take the positives from what was another very good season for the club.”
For a second successive season, the Chiefs finished the regular Premiership season top of the tree, eight points clear of Saracens. Not only did Baxter’s side score the most tries in the league, but they were second in the charts on the points for column, as well as boasting the division’s meanest defence.
“Last year’s final was tougher to take I guess because we had things in our hands,” explained Armand. “We have a couple of moments where we let things slip, they capitalised, and that was what proved the difference come the end. Had we just been a bit cleaner in those areas, it would have been ours, but it wasn’t meant to be. Moving forward, I guess the lesson for us all is that we have to keep playing for the whole 80 minutes.”
Quite rightly, the Chiefs could again be proud of their seasonal efforts and Armand says the season upon season improvement within the squad will ensure Exeter head into the new season with plenty of optimism.
“We’ve been knocking on the door for a while now,” he continued. “It’s not a journey I would want to replace. Over the years now we’ve played pretty much all of the so-called ‘top teams’ and we’ve either won against them or coming within a penalty kick.
“As I said, lessons have been learnt in all of those games, including the final, and I am sure we will see benefits in all competitions. If anything, I think there is more hunger within us than had we won the Premiership.”
And with Baxter relatively quiet in terms of bringing in fresh faces to the club, Armand insists the settled look to the Chiefs squad will ensure last season’s runners-up have the perfect foundations from which to build their latest title assault.
“The make-up of the squad is brilliant,” said Armand. “We’ll lose a few of the guys early on because of the World Cup, but it means for those guys who are here, it won’t be an ‘if’ you are going to be involved, it’s more of a ‘you will be’ involved and you have to be ready.
“That in itself will drive guys through pre-season, so it’s a great opportunity for all of us to put their hands up and show what they are about.”