'I could actually write a book about all these characters in the Exeter changing room - it would be a best-seller'
You can take Thomas Waldrom out of Exeter but you seemingly can’t ever take the Exeter out of Thomas Waldrom. There he was last Sunday morning, nearly 12,000 miles away in Lower Hutt cracking open a celebratory breakfast bottle of Heineken to salute the newly crowned European champions.
He’ll hope to do the same this weekend, except he won’t be watching the Chiefs from his home outside Wellington where he now works as a sales rep for Heineken, covering a territory that stretches from the bottom of North Island as far as Foxton, a couple of hours drive along the Cook Strait coast.
Waldrom, who is keeping himself fit with some running and weekly ‘dad’s club’ mountain biking, is pencilled in for some Saturday veterans action at Eden Park against an ex-All Blacks selection and regardless of whether he makes it through the Auckland night with or without some shut-eye, he hopes ultimately to have a cheesy grin on his face – and a beverage at the ready – when the final whistle sounds at Twickenham.
Double Champions? It has a lovely ring to it and although 37-year-old Waldrom is now over two years gone from England, his heart is still very much with Exeter. Eighty league appearances he made for them, the highlight being the breakthrough 2017 title win, while he also feverishly laid the foundation during the club’s acclimatisation phase in Europe, 18 appearances across a four-year spell that was mana after a difficult ending at Leicester with Richard Cockerill.
More of that contretemps with Cockers later; first there’s a league final to tease out. “I don’t want to jinx it,” said Waldrom to RugbyPass over Zoom. “Knowing Rob (Baxter) he will change a couple of boys to bring the freshness back.
Without further ado, the Premiership final is ??! ?
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) October 21, 2020
“It will be interesting to see how they react to that first 25 minutes of the game and if they are off by five per cent. You don’t want it to cost them but it might be an opportunity for Wasps to attack them… but Rob will have the boys firing and on task hopefully.
“Last weekend was amazing. It was nerve-wracking but to see them get up and win was definitely worth getting up in the early hours, having a beer at four in the morning. It was definitely nerve-wracking when Tom Francis got sin-binned going for an intercept. Knowing him real well I don’t think he was actually going for that intercept but it looked bad, which was upsetting for him. But I know the way Exeter work – they dug deep and gave it everything.”
With the trophy glittering and the smiles beaming, the raucous celebrations that Waldrom glimpsed on his TV screen catapulted him back in time to when he was at the heart of all the Exeter high jinx. “The Chiefs boys know how to celebrate a win. To see clips of them singing the song in the changing room it does bring back a lot of memories of when you were in there.
“The smiles, the enjoyment, all the hard work, all the hours behind closed doors that people don’t see and sometimes the tantrums of teammates just because it’s such a competitive environment – that all goes out the window when you can sit down, have a beer and actually enjoy it.”
Waldrom was supposed to have visited Exeter in August. Ben Moon’s testimonial game was pencilled in pre-Covid, but the pandemic shelved that rendezvous, leaving their old No8 relying on technology to stay in the loop.
“I just spoke to Kai Horseman probably just an hour ago,” he said on Wednesday. “We’d a bit of a chat about the Premiership final. I normally talk to Dave Ewers, Tom Francis. I even text Rob Hunter, Rob Baxter, still keep in contact with them to say well done and good luck for the weekend, stuff like that. I still keep in contact with a few of them.
“I could actually write a book about all these characters in the Exeter changing room. It would be a best-seller,” he continued, offering up an insight into what makes the Chiefs tick. “The changing room is a unique place. Jack Yeandle is probably the most hated man in the changing room!
“You used always enjoy after a lineout session all the boys taking their tapes off their legs and not putting it in the bin, making it into balls, seeing who could make the biggest ball and then just firing them at each other in the changing room.
— Thomas waldrom (@Toottankwaldrom) October 17, 2020
“Things like that you just can’t replicate because it is the changing room and it was like no other changing room you were part of because everyone gets along. It’s a place where if you get too big for your boots you get put down to earth real quick. It’s a great environment and they have kept it alive.”
Alive and well as well is their infamous cookie club, the calorific carry-on where some designs would give the club nutritionist heart palpitations. “I said to Kai I still haven’t had enough courage to leave the group on WhatsApp because it meant so much to me.
“You look it up every week to see them still doing it, sharing messages and having a bit of a chat and seeing what they have made for each other. It brings a smile to my face, and I just do my own cookie club over here by myself. There were so many treats. I remember doing a mini doughnut cake, about 15 mini doughnuts all joined together with cream and chocolate. There was lots of stuff and everyone had their signature dishes.
“Dave Ewers, he’s real good at carrot cake. Don Armand, he does a Toblerone tart which was really nice as well. Ollie Devoto loves doing a banana loaf. Everyone has their different expertise,” said Waldrom, who admitted with a glint in his eye that his treats weren’t always sweet either. “I do miss some of the cream tea spots we used to go to quite often. The local burger truck at the bottom of the hill, I miss that one as well.”
— Thomas waldrom (@Toottankwaldrom) October 20, 2017
Waldrom was chasing Premiership and European trophies with Leicester when Exeter first appeared on his horizon, fresh out of the Championship in 2010 after an elongated climb up English rugby’s pyramid structure. “When they first came up you wouldn’t blink an eyelid, you probably didn’t do too much analysis on them at the start. But being down there and knowing what they were trying to do, they were trying to get a system that everyone enjoys and everyone can play the rugby they want to play, not just play Premiership rugby to survive.
“They wanted to go out and enjoy what they were doing, turn people’s heads. That’s what they were building from 2010 until now, going about the business of getting people in that add stuff to the environment, people who were on the outer like myself but had a lot of offer. Somehow he [Baxter] got them humming.
“You have got a good ten examples, like Tom Francis, Mitch Lees, Harry Williams, these guys that were floating around the Championship. He saw potential in them and knew that if he sold the Chiefs dream and if they came down and worked hard, you could be a good rugby player. That is what has happened.”
It was 2014 when Baxter worked his Exeter spiel on Waldrom, uprooting his young family and switching from East Midlands to Exminster. At the time, leaving a club with a long history of challenging for honours to go to an unfashionable outfit still finding its feet was a bold move.
How much does Eddie Jones hate the @ExeterChiefs boys!!!!! Only 3 in the 36 man squad. That’s a joke
— Thomas waldrom (@Toottankwaldrom) September 20, 2018
But when the time came to leave Exeter four years later, those reputations had been exchanged and the Chiefs were the ones loving life in the upper echelons, looking below at a struggling Leicester. “I give a lot of credit to Leicester for having me reach my international dream of playing for England (the Kiwi won five caps under Stuart Lancaster). If it wasn’t for them I don’t think I would have got an opportunity because it is a well-known club and the way they go about things is world-class.
“But I knew pretty early on in my fourth year, Richard Cockerill and I didn’t see eye to eye. We were on different pages and I knew I wanted to go somewhere different. Being from New Zealand me and my wife sat down and said if we’re not going to stay in Leicester, shall we go to a London club so we can actually enjoy what we’re doing, sightseeing and enjoy the London lifestyle where something is always going on?
“My wife then went back to New Zealand for a holiday, for her sister’s wedding, and I rang her and said my agent has got me a meeting with Rob Baxter from Exeter. Emma was like, ‘Where’s Exeter?’ I was like it’s somewhere near the beach and she was, “Okay then because you’re landlocked in Leicester’. In New Zealand, you really love the beach.
“I went and met Rob on the M42. The way he presented to me, he was one of those coaches you knew you were going to get on really well with. He’s really good at man-managing people, not just his coaching but managing people as well. We clicked pretty much straight away.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) October 22, 2020
“He had done all his analysis on me, said I like the way you carry but we need to work on your defence and other things. He talked about rugby first, where he wanted to see the club and the direction it was going. He talked with passion and the amount of effort he put in to look at my games, showing me what he liked and what we can work on. He sold it to me on the day. I came home to sell it to my wife, said we’re going to Exeter and that was it.”
Despite their impressive success, respect for the Chiefs from the outside isn’t universal. Waldrom couldn’t care less, though. Winning rugby is winning rugby, no matter what way it is constructed. “I don’t think Exeter read into that sort of rubbish,” he insisted ahead of a fifth successive league final appearance for Baxter’s club.
“If you look at it, if teams leave you to get five-metre scrums and rucks two metres from the line you know what’s going to happen if you don’t defend it properly. If you can’t stop it you’re going to go down five points.
“Exeter just take it in their stride and play the way they play, do whatever they deem to be what will get them the win at the end of the day. Like Stuart Barnes, for example, he abused the Chiefs a few years ago saying they are not that entertaining but no one reads into it. The Chiefs just get on and do we what they do best, do their best business.”
It's been an incredible season so far for @ExeterChiefs ?
Here's their journey to the finale – what was their best moment?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) October 22, 2020
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