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'I remember a pretty blunt conversation with him': The making of Exeter's Tom O'Flaherty

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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With Eddie Jones poised to cast his net wide when he announces his England summer series squad next Thursday, Exeter boss Rob Baxter believes his soon-to-be 27-year-old winger Tom O’Flaherty could be a good shout for a first-ever involvement at international level. It was last Wednesday declared: “Obviously centre has been a position where we need to bring some new talent through… the wingers is another position where there is an opportunity for some young guys to come through.”

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O’Flaherty might not be young in the conventional sense but he has undeniably been enjoying his best season yet at the Exeter where his emergence has been typical of the type of unheralded, off the radar signing the Chiefs have made a successful knack of.

The Londoner was on the books at Ospreys when Baxter first took a shine. O’Flaherty made just a single PRO12 appearance, playing as a try-scoring sub versus Glasgow in November 2016, but he enjoyed greater exposure in the Anglo-Welsh and British & Irish Cups, scoring four tries in ten games before he swapped countries. 

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That was 2017 and it has been a slow build, the winger making just two short appearances off the Premiership bench in his first season before eventually finding his feet, going on to become a regular starter in last term’s league and European Cup double. 

He has since fared even better in his fourth season at the club and he came into this weekend’s round 21 Premiership action out in front in two of the league’s player charts. His tally of 1,176 metres gained was 138 metres more than the next-best Tom Parton of London Irish while his tally of 73 defenders beaten was 13 better than next-best Zach Mercer of Bath.

Add in the seven tries he has scored in his 18 starts and it is safe to suggest that his season has been going swimmingly ahead of this Sunday’s trip to Northampton. Baxter is chuffed with O’Flaherty, describing him and record-breaking try-scorer Sam Simmonds as spearhead type players in the Exeter effort to retain their Premiership title. “He is one of those markers of those few players who need to have their best, best season, they are the guys that are the spearhead of a team that does well in a particular year,” suggested Baxter when O’Flaherty’s chart-topping exploits were put to him by RugbyPass.  

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“Neither of those guys [O’Flaherty and Lions pick Simmonds] might have the same year next year but you need a couple of other guys to be like that and it kind of means the team can get around them, it has an energy towards them and an energy in helping them achieve and that whole thing can create a drive for a whole group of players.

“That is what I mean, you need some guys to really seize the moment and once they start getting towards the top of those tables then it’s something that can really drive and everyone can really focus on to make sure they come out on top of those charts and they come out winning those awards.”

Asked to reflect on why he felt back in 2017 that the little known O’Flaherty was potentially a good long-term fit for Exeter, Baxter added: “There are a few things that are clear that we look for. I don’t want to talk about it because they are a little bit of a blueprint for us and they have proven successful, so I don’t want to just throw it out there for everyone to know, but what he did is he ticks a lot of the boxes that we look for that make someone selectable, so we tend to look for a few qualities that make players selectable. 

“We focus on those first. He had those in spades and it’s no secret if you watch him now you will see what some of them were and that gives you a foundation that is worth working from. That is what we tend to find. The players we bring in from outside, off the radar so to speak, we have three or four really simple criteria that we expect them to be very good at. If they have those criteria that gives us a foundation we can work from and develop from. 

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“Tom worked very hard in his first year to start doing those things. I remember having a pretty blunt conversation with him where he asked me what was happening around selection and I said you are going to have to trust me. When I think you are doing X, Y and Z better than this guy and this guy then we will pick you. 

“He kind of went okay then and then he did it and we picked him and he has been in and around the squad ever since. It wasn’t anything magical, it was he got a lot of hard work done, he got himself in a place to be able to play how he is playing and fair play to him.

“He has worked very hard with the other coaches and worked very hard himself and has got himself in a position to play a lot of games of rugby. You tend to find players improve quickly playing more games and that is what happened with Tom.”

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'I remember a pretty blunt conversation with him': The making of Exeter's Tom O'Flaherty

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