Hepher praises side's mental strength
By Mark Stevens
Ali Hepher was quick to praise the mental strength of his squad as they returned to winning ways with a comprehensive 43-13 victory over Wasps in the Gallagher Premiership.
Just a week after surrendering their European Champions Cup crown, the Devonians underlined their desire to keep hold of their English title, producing a powerful second half performance to ensure they remain in the top two with just six rounds of the regular season remaining.
Having bagged early tries through Ollie Devoto and Jonny Hill, the Chiefs were actually down at the break, having conceded a converted try from Josh Bassett and two penalties from young fly-half Jacob Umaga.
With the elements in their favour for the second period, the reigning champions were at their ruthless best, scoring 33 unanswered points thanks to tries from Stuart Hogg (2), Facundo Cordero, Joe Simmonds and Tomas Francis.
According to head coach Hepher, the victory not only helped banish the disappointment of their European quarter-final exit to Leinster, but gave them the perfect boost ahead of this Friday’s top of the table showdown with league leaders Bristol Bears.
“It’s been a tough week, we know that, but it’s also been a good, positive week as well because it’s given us clear direction to move forward and get better as a team,” said Hepher.
“To mentally come back within a week is a tough ask. There has been a lot of debriefing and analysing, and we have probably gone through that (Leinster) game as much as any game in the past, but equally on Wednesday we needed to draw a line under it and shift on.
“That was the challenge today, and we needed to be at a certain level, mentally, because last year they [Wasps] were in the final and they are a tough side.”
In what was an action-packed first half, it was the visitors who held a slender lead. However, Hepher saw enough in that first 40 minutes to encourage both himself and his team that they would prevail come full-time.
“It’s getting frustrating at times, but equally we have massive confidence in our guys,” said Hepher. “Sometimes they just need a bit of guiding and that’s what we were able to do at half time.
“It was almost going to be who decides to keep going and keep driving it home, and who decides to have those negative thoughts, so the biggest thing (at half-time) was pushing the positive head.
“We know all our guys are very good players and that they know how to win. At the end of the day, I would have happily have taken a one-point win, so to score 40 points is a great start point.”
As well as seeing his side return to winning ways, another big positive from the game was the sight of Jack Nowell playing his first game since the Chiefs lifted the Premiership title last October.
The England and British Lions winger was used as a second half replacement and Hepher was delighted to see the Cornishman back in action
He added: “It was a bit of a bonus. We were aiming for next week (against Bristol), but he has been training really well and he has been itching to get out there for months now.
“I am pleased for him. He has put a lot of hard work in, and hopefully he has a strong end to the season.”
Next up for Hepher, Nowell and the Chiefs will be Friday’s short trek to Ashton Gate to face a Bears side, who remain 12 points clear at the top of the table.
“It’s going to be a changed up week - what with the short turnaround - but it will also give us a clear focus,” said Hepher. “We know we’ve got a week off after that game, so it means we can really attack it. Also, we lost when we played them down here earlier in the season, so it’s important we bounce back.”