Hill focused on task ahead
By Mark Stevens
Things are different and times have certainly changed, but for the Exeter Chiefs it feels like nothing has really changed, particularly given their impressive return to Gallagher Premiership in the past month.
Having seen off Leicester Tigers in their opening fixture back, all eyes were on Rob Baxter’s table-topping outfit as they readied themselves for their top-of-the-table encounters against Sale Sharks and, more recently, Bristol Bears.
It was seen as a pivotal few days for Devon’s finest, but on both occasions they rose to the task. First, they produced a powerful second half display to sink the Sharks – and they followed it up four days later with an equally impressive showing against a star-studded Bears outfit.
It underlined the strength that exists within the current Chiefs squad, particularly as Baxter had opted for a virtually different starting XV for both fixtures.
One man who featured in Manchester – and who will feature again against visiting Worcester Warriors on Sunday – is in-form second row star Jonny Hill, who alongside new recruit Jonny Gray, have formed a mouth-watering pairing in the Exeter engine room.
“It’s nice to be back out there again,” said the 26-year-old lock. “We’re three gams down and we’ve started well. As a group we’ve hit the ground running, which is wanted we wanted, but with the way the schedule is right now, we now we can’t afford to take our foot off the pedal.”
Currently, 11 points clear of next-best Bristol, the Chiefs are certainly on course to reach a fifth successive play-off semi-final. However, speak to anyone within the camp, no-one is taking anything for granted and that the focus remains as clear now as it did when Baxter welcomed his troops back in July of 2019.
“We have to keep pushing forward,” said Hill, whose performances this term have yielded not only four tries and a string of fine displays, but have also propelled him right to the forefront of many people’s minds, including that of England head coach Eddie Jones.
“I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but as players we’re not looking too far ahead,” said the Ludlow-born ace. “Right now, the focus is all on Sunday and preparing for Worcester. As a group, our aim is to make sure we keep nailing in the results and getting the performances right so that we can get that home semi-final again.
“Right now, the games are coming thick and fast, but as you’ve seen it’s been a squad effort from all of us over these last few weeks. We had a good win up at Sale and then we doubled it up with an equally good one at Bristol on Tuesday.
“It was so good to see the group as a whole step up, particularly some of the younger boys who were getting their debuts the other night. The mood amongst us all is really positive and we want to keep that going between now and the end of the season.”
Certainly, the culture and the environment the Chiefs have created is there for all to see – and Hill admits having that ‘strong bond’ – both on and off the field – can be the key to success this term.
“Lockdown was strange for all of us,” he added. “Thankfully, the club provided us with gym equipment and we had the odd Zoom call or What’s App message, which put a bit of pressure on to get things done.
“Luckily, I like the outdoors and I was able to get out still and be active. I stayed fit, I did my gym work, I even did some gardening as well!
“Now, though, I think we’re all pleased to be back in here and playing games again. As a group, I think we all realise we can achieve a lot this season, but we know we can’t look too far ahead. It’s about focusing on the week-to-week stuff and seeing where it will take us.”