By Jack Sanderson
After another tense comeback victory in the Champions Cup against Glasgow Warriors, Exeter Chiefs now prepare for their second trip of the season to France, where they will face Bayonne in their final pool match of the competition.
Should the Chiefs equal Munster’s result against Northampton, they would secure a top two finish in the group, and therefore a home tie in the round of 16.
However, if Chiefs beat Bayonne, and Munster beat Northampton, not only would a home tie be confirmed for the Chiefs, but also the honour of finishing first in the group. This would give them a game against a team that finished fourth in their group, rather than a team that finished in third.
Despite such a big game upcoming for the Chiefs, a lot of media attention this week has been focusing on the recent news of the call-ups for the upcoming Six Nations campaign. Three Chiefs were called up for the England squad in Imannuel Feyi-Waboso, Henry Slade, and Ethan Roots. Alec Hepburn, the ex-England international has been called up by Scotland, whilst South Africa born Ross Vincent has once again been called up by the Italian national side.
The biggest story of the lot, however, is 21 year old Dafydd Jenkins, who will become the second youngest player ever to captain Wales at the Six Nations. Despite Jenkins taking on the role at such a young age, Rob Baxter was full of praise for his player and thinks he’s the right man for the job.
“It’s fantastic! Dafydd walked into the office a little while ago, and obviously the players had been starting to get little bits of info earlier, and he had a bit of a shocked look on his face but he was obviously delighted. He said he’d just got off the phone with Warren Gatland, who’d offered him the Wales captaincy, so for the couple of coaches who were in the office it was a fantastic thing to be there and be part of, and be the first to congratulate him.
“It’s a great moment for him, a good moment for the club, and it just shows what these young men are capable of, if they train hard and work hard and commit to playing together, the world’s their oyster really.
“The main thing he’s got is the attitude at training, and around the place. You look at (him) and think ‘you could build a team around this guy’, and I think that’s what I look at. I look at him more than someone who can stand there, sounds good and says nice things.
“For me, your captains, your leaders, the people you want driving your team, are the guys you look at and think ‘you can build a team around (him) and he’s got that quality’. I think that’s the quality he’s got above all else, that makes him the right man for the job”.
Another name mentioned above whose selection for a Six Nations side piqued a bit of media interest was the inclusion of Cardiff-born and Wales U18s talent Imannuel Feyi-Waboso in the England squad, despite his links to the Welsh side. However, due to some uncertainty on why this decision had been made, Rob Baxter explained all.
“I don’t know if many people know this but one of Manny’s dreams is obviously to play international rugby and to win trophies and play Premiership rugby, but another big part of his dream, is eventually qualifying to be a doctor.
“It’s not just always about rugby, and he’s obviously got himself relatively settled at Exeter University, I think he feels comfortable with how things are working with the course and with us.
“That’s a big factor for him as well, because once he goes to play for Wales, that’s it, there’s no get out for him. If he wants to stay professional in the sport and keep playing internationally for Wales, he’d have to go back there, there’s no leeway there for him.
“I think these are all things people need to make sure they take into account when they wonder why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s got big decisions to make as well but his are not all completely based on picking one country or the other.
“He’s got himself up and running now in his medical career and I know it means a lot to him, and he doesn’t want to have to change that scenario again if he can avoid it. So those are the decisions he’s had to come to and I think he looks pretty comfortable with what he’s come to.”
A third Chiefs call up that made quite a stir was ex-England international Alec Hepburn being called up for the Scotland side. His only stint came as he was called up to England for the 2018 Six Nations campaign, when England finished fifth. Hepburn will be hoping for a better finish this season in the tartan of Scotland, after receiving the call up from head coach Gregor Townsend, which caught Rob Baxter a little by surprise.
“I have to admit I’m a little surprised. I did know he was eligible for Scotland but it wasn’t one of those things that I ever stopped to consider would happen until now. Obviously that’s come about very quickly, I think Gregor Townsend’s been really pleased watching him play, and it’s an interesting situation for Alec, so it’s going to be another great experience for him which is obviously what we want the players to have.
“It’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened, but in reality, I think the person this is oddest for is Alec himself. I think he’s probably in the most awkward position in that he probably doesn’t want to get caught in this debate because he hasn’t played for Scotland, he doesn’t play in Scotland unless we play Glasgow, he’s never trained in a Scotland camp, he hasn’t played with any of those lads so he’s probably feeling a little bit awkward about everything. He just probably needs to get the Six Nations camp done and get settled in and then he can probably start to have a few views on what it feels like”.
With Bayonne sitting second-bottom of Pool 3, (lost twice and drawn once), their most recent loss was a heavy 61-14 defeat away to Northampton. The Chiefs will be feeling confident of another victorious trip to the South of France, and going into Sunday’s game, the Chiefs will know the result of Northampton’s game with Munster. Therefore, they will know what they need to do in order to cement their spot in second, or possibly first place in the group.
However, despite Bayonne’s poor run of results in the competition, and the Chief’s great position in the pool, Director of Rugby Rob Baxter says it will be a good challenge for his young side.
“It’s an interesting situation because we play the final game of the whole round, and Northampton play Munster the night before we play, so we will know exactly what we need to at least get the second spot and potentially we might know what we need to get the first spot.
“I think those are all interesting challenges for a young group, because there’s no point trying not to watch the game or not know what we need to do, but how we make sure it doesn’t become a distraction is going to be important.
“The home last 16 is going to be very important to us, so we want to make sure we get that bit right, and for me I think it’s a little interesting how Northampton’s result against Bayonne has probably clouded what people haven’t seen of Bayonne, which is their recent results in the Top 14, which are really, really good.
“I think people have got to be a little bit more aware that they’re a tough nut to crack at home. I imagine they’ll be very fired up, and that they’ve had a pretty tough time this week based on their result last week. We have got to prepare like we’re going into a big battle and we’ve got to turn up with an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm. We’re going to have to get into a fight for eighty minutes”.
One Chiefs talent who had a huge impact on last weekend’s game against Glasgow Warriors, is Tommy Wyatt. The centre had an incredible game, breaking the Glasgow defensive line on a number of occasions and looked like a spark in getting the Chiefs back into the match, after trailing for the most part. However, unfortunately for Chiefs fans, Wyatt was seen hobbling off after an hour, and Rob Baxter’s news on the injury wasn’t very promising.
“No it’s not great, he’s probably out for the season, ACL. Obviously disappointing for him, same as Nika (Abuladze), Nika’s had a significant achilles injury so he’s going to require an operation as well, so the win came at a price for us.
“That’s a bit frustrating considering both those guys have been playing very well so it’s tough on those guys because they’ve been having a good season, they’ve been key parts of the good things we’ve achieved this season, and no doubt they’d have been very important parts of any kind of run-in we could have.
“So, feel for them a bit, but the good thing is they’re both young enough to get this done, both of them should be able to start next season flying, and we’ve got to move that way with them and look forward to next season and getting them back”.
France is well known for having some of the noisiest rugby fans in the world, with the atmosphere always playing a huge part when a team plays away. With the Chiefs having already come away from France with a victory in the Champions Cup this year, they will be looking to do so again this weekend. Chiefs hooker and current highest appearance maker Jack Yeandle seems to think his team are going to need to silence the home crowd early on on Sunday, if the Chiefs are going to come away from Bayonne with anything.
“Keeping them quiet tends to make a big difference. They’re very influential and they’re very loud and intimidating, but it’s almost embracing that noise, not being afraid of it and being able to use it as a driver to keep the noise down a bit.
“It’s not just a can win, it’s a desire to, and that Toulon win shows that we’ve got a method of doing it but a lot of it revolves around the focus of what we do, not on what the opposition do, because they can have all sorts of fancy plays and trick plays and certain huge ball carriers, but we’ve got to enforce our game.
“It makes a huge difference. If we just turn up and let them get their big ball carriers running through us and get the offloads in it becomes a very hard day at the office.”
Yeandle has played 274 times for the Chiefs, making him the man in the squad with the most appearances, 60 more than the next closest player in Henry Slade (214). Having made his debut for the Chiefs back in 2012, his immense tally of caps has come over a twelve year stint, and he is relishing his role as a senior figure, when helping the younger players find their feet.
“It’s nice to have the experience, so I know what to expect in certain places you play or the pressures of a certain game, but at the end of the day it’s a team game. One person isn’t going to make the be all and end all of decisions and they’re not going to affect the game hugely on their own, it’s about how the team go out there and perform, and I think that’s been a strength of ours, how well we have come together as a team”.