Season Review - May
By Mark Stevens
With the world still doing it’s utmost to try and combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the month of May saw the majority of people still confined to lockdown and restricted access.
Exeter Chiefs players, meanwhile, were continuing to train individually at home, not knowing exactly when they would be able to come back to Stage One training at Sandy Park.
Progress, albeit slowly, was happening and Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, was keen to spread the positivity throughout the month, including a detailed interview with BBC Radio Devon.
He said: “There are challenges currently, but I think the big thing from me - and it’s something I’m a little disappointed about when I hear other coaches and some players talk about the subject -we seem to be finding all the reasons not to play, when actually if you look at what the country is trying to do, especially through the measures they are trying to set out for these next two or three weeks, here the country is looking at ways to get back to some kind of level of normality.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to try and brush over the tragedies that have happened or the awful things that have during the outbreak, but as we all try and take some responsibility and try and get back to some kind of normality, I think we have to look at the positives that are around rugby.
“The level of safety we have to ensure, even in a regular environment, is huge. We have expertise within our medical staff to stop the spread of viruses. I know Covid-19 is very different, but stopping its spread is very much the same as stopping the spread of any virus through a team. We know what we’re doing.
“These days in professional sport, including professional rugby, the amount of dedicated, professional medical personnel that are involved is huge. Here at Exeter, Adrian Harris heads up our medical side, but at the same time he’s also heading up things at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital, so this is not a guy who doesn’t know what he is doing.”
Baxter continued: “As I said, all the clubs in the Premiership have to have a lot of medical provisions in place just for training sessions to even take place. The medical provisions of what we will provide straight away in terms of Stage One training, which will be small groups of players doing socially distanced running sessions, will be a lot more safer than anything else the players are doing, other than staying at home.
“If anything, we’re creating a safer environment for players and staff than in everyday life. “It’s far, far safer than going to the supermarket, where you’re touching things other people may have picked up and put back, and where people often break the two-metre rule.”
It was a message echoed by Chiefs’ chairman Tony Rowe OBE, who added: “A lot has happened in these past four months and a lot will change in the next four months, that is why I am a lot more optimistic about the future and about us getting back to playing rugby again.
"Having spoken with Rob [Baxter] we are both very encouraged by the announcement this week and we feel there is a very good chance that we can get back to some kind of normality in the not too distant future.”
In the community itself, the Chiefs were continuing to play their part. Harry Williams’ efforts in the Make That Call campaign, plus a hilarious online cooking demo saw him named the Gallagher Premiership Community Player of the Mont, while the club raised £13,000 from the sale of signed memorabilia for the NHS.
Other activities saw England international Luke Cowan-Dickie do his bit, raising over £800 for the Exeter Chiefs Foundation after he took part in a 24-hour, online gaming event.
Elsewhere, having concluded much of his contract dealings the previous month, young forward Sean Lonsdale was the latest name to pledge his long-term future to the Chiefs. On the flip side, there was the news that others would be moving on, including England international Matt Kvesic, who was returning to former club Worcester, Max Bodilly to Ealing Trailfinders and forwards Josh Caulfield and James McRae to the Cornish Pirates.
May also saw the publishing of the comprehensive review of Premiership Rugby’s Salary Cap regulations led by former Government Minister, Lord Myners CBE. The independent review followed on from the 2019 case in which an independent disciplinary panel upheld charges against Saracens for breaches of the Salary Cap.
Among the changes proposed in the report, Lord Myners recommended:
- Greater flexibility for a Disciplinary Panel in relation to the range, and severity, of sanctions to ensure “the punishment fits the crime”, including the availability of sanctions such as suspensions and the removal of titles
- The promotion of greater transparency, which will broaden and deepen visibility and scrutiny
- Greater accountability for the board and the executives of the constituent clubs of Premiership Rugby
- Greater accountability for the players and their agents
- Increased reporting obligations on clubs
- Stronger investigatory powers vested in the salary cap manager function and increased resource to perform this function
- Making the regulations easier for clubs to understand, and for Premiership Rugby to administer
It made for interesting reading, as did the various articles and videos the Chiefs created to mark the club’s 10-year anniversary of winning promotion into the Premiership.
Messrs Rowe and Baxter both gave detailed insights into how they remembered that time in the club’s history, as did at least 14 of the squad, who came together for an online chat, reminiscing all about the 2009/10 season and that magical night when they defeated Bristol.
Baxter explains: “For those of us who were there, we certainly didn’t just arrive, it felt like bloody hard work and we had to go through a lot and be patient.
“I played and captained Exeter when we went from the fourth tier to the second tier two years running in 1996 and 1997 and got to within touching distance of the top-flight, but we spent a lot of time in the old first division and the overriding message you’ll get from people who’ve been involved in this club for a long time is that although ambitions changed, it’s NOT been a meteoric rise.
“We got there or thereabouts in the league many times without succeeding. We got to the final of the tier two cup competition four times but lost the lot. But while other clubs briefly shone before falling away, we never got dented by failure and it’s that resilience that’s shown through.
“As big as beating Bristol was – and it was a very special moment – in reality it was only the next step of a journey that had taken years. It’s the same attitude that underpins us now.”