Season Review - March
By Mark Stevens
Having already confirmed the arrivals of Scottish internationals Jonny Gray and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne the previous month, Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter used the start of March to announce two more additions to his squad for the 2020/21 season.
In what was another bold statement of intent from Baxter, his latest recruits were with one eye on the future as he confirmed the arrivals of Gloucester and England Under-20s back-row forward Aaron Hinkley, together with highly-rated Scarlets back Corey Baldwin.
The good news didn’t stop there at Sandy Park as Jack Maunder’s impressive on-field form was rewarded with a training call-up from Eddie Jones into his England squad preparing for their latest Six Nations encounter against Wales. It was Maunder’s first inclusion in an England squad since he made his Test debut under Jones on the summer tour of Argentina in 2017.
Although the talented scrum-half would not add to his solitary England cap against the Welsh, the call-up indicated he was still very much on the radar of Jones, particularly with the Australian looking to the future and beyond the likes of present stars Ben Youngs, Willi Heinz and Danny Care.
Having lost their last Gallagher Premiership fixture away to Harlequins with a penalty try in the last play of the game, the Chiefs were dealt another blow in the aftermath of that clash with the news that centre Ollie Devoto had picked up a four-week ban for a dangerous tackle on home fly-half Marcus Smith.
It meant the England international missed out on Exeter’s next league fixture against former club Bath at Sandy Park.
Devoto, sadly, had to watch from the stands as the Chiefs avenged their earlier defeat by their near neighbours with one of their best displays of the season. In a dominant first half they led 29-3 and come the close had inflicted a 57-20 on Stuart Hooper’s side thanks to tries from Tom O’Flaherty, Olly Woodburn (2), Sam Simmonds (2), Jannes Kirsten, Elvis Taione and Maunder.
Preceding the Bath clash was a second - but first at Sandy Park - run-out for the newly-formed Exeter Chiefs Women, who despite taking an early lead thanks to a converted try from Hannah Gascoigne, ended up losing to the well-drilled British Army Women 27-7.
In the aftermath of the Bath victory, one which was laid down impressively by the Exeter pack, forwards coach Rob Hunter said: ““I’m very happy. As most folk know, I will normally pick my way
through games and find things to be grumpy about, but the reality is we put a lot of effort into training this week and again into the game today and we’ve got our results for all that effort.
“Every week you talk about performance being the key thing. I know we got away at the end with a couple of tries, but actually the intensity and the energy we put into that first half, if I’m honest, it was in stark contrast to last week. Take nothing away from Harlequins, they fronted up against us, but we know we didn’t put in the kind of energy levels that we normally expect of ourselves.
“That hurt a bit this week, so it’s nice to see a good training week like we had, get transferred onto the pitch. I can’t speak highly enough of the lads. They put a lot of emotion, a lot energy, and a lot of fight onto the pitch today.”
Little did anyone know at the time, but this would be the last competitive fixture for the Chiefs for months as within days of this win the country was being lockdown by Prime Minister Boris Johnson due to the extent of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Away from domestic action, Exeter Chiefs duo Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade both featured as England claimed the Triple Crown in the Six Nations thanks to a hard-fought 33-30 victory over Wales at Twickenham. Elsewhere, captain Stuart Hogg and Sam Skinner helped Scotland to victory in their home encounter with France at Murrayfield.
With rugby suspended from this point, everyone’s focus was on staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. That meant the Chiefs were forced into individual training plans at home, not knowing exactly when they - or anyone associated with the club - would be returning to Sandy Park.
Despite there being no action, Baxter was keeping himself busy, renewing the contracts of England props Ben Moon and Harry Williams, but there was confirmation that long-serving centre Sam Hill, a product of the club’s highly successful academy set-up, would be leaving at the end of his current contract to join Premiership counterparts Sale Sharks.