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Jack Nowell: 'I never thought I was going to be in the position'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Red Bull)

Jack Nowell looked quite the chill picture lapping up the sunny Devon weather last Thursday morning from his back garden. The sky was postcard blue, his tattooed abs were glistening, and his face was full of the joys of summer just days after he had revealed he wouldn’t be training for a place in Steve Borthwick’s England World Cup squad.

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His decision was headline news but needs must. A life-changing move is on the mid-July horizon for his young family after the 30-year-old snapped up a Top 14 contract and getting them settled in France is the priority – not trying to play his way into what would have been his third World Cup campaign.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was a hard decision,” Nowell told RugbyPass while perched on a backyard bench, a baseball cap wedged to his head in traditional back-to-front style. “Originally, I was going to be named in the provisional squad, which is going to come out soon, but the reaction has been very positive.

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“This is a decision I haven’t just made over the last couple of weeks, it was probably months and months ago now that I made the decision, so I have actually had a long time to think about it and to dwell on it and I’m sticking by it. It is the best decision I could have made for the family.

“It’s hard moving, very hard. If it was just me and my wife it would be a lot easier but the fact that we have got three kids and one of them being a newborn does make it a little bit harder. The first thing I want to make sure is they are happy and settled. It’s not just as easy as packing a couple of bags and off you go.

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“I need to make sure we have got a suitable house for them, I need to make sure we have a decent car, that we are in a nice area and then we have also got to sort schools and stuff like that. As much in the background I am trying to get myself ready and get my body ready, I’d say the majority of my thoughts at the moment is making sure that they get settled as quickly as possible.”

It was November when he won his 45th and last cap, coming on as a replacement against the Springboks in what proved to be Eddie Jones’ final game in charge. The January heads-up from Borthwick was that he wouldn’t be considered for the Guinness Six Nations, a strange situation for Nowell as he was nearly always an England squad pick when fit.

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However, that omission got him thinking and such is the peace he has now reached with himself, he will be an enthusiastic England fan by the time the World Cup gets going rather than a disaffected ex-Test player unhappy with his situation.

“You do watch it through a different set of lenses when you are very much involved in the squad but the fact that I wasn’t picked in the squad for the first time when I was fit gave me a different perspective of it – and even more so now that I have made the decision (about RWC).

“Now I can sit back and watch and enjoy it because those boys that are in the squad, I know every single one of them. I played with them, played against them, so they are some of my good friends. I do wish them all the best and the fact is that I now get to sit back and properly support them. Hopefully, I can go to a few games in the summer and watch them. As a fan I am very excited.”

Nowell should have been in London this weekend rather than chasing the sun. Jones had wanted him as part of Barbarians taking on a World XV at Twickenham on Sunday but a lingering ache from Exeter’s April 30 Heineken Champions Cup semi-final exit counted him out. Instead, his immediate rugby focus is ensuring that everything is in readiness for next Saturday’s intriguing Red Bull Elevate event.

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The June 3 Sandy Park testimonial get-together on behalf of Nowell and Henry Slade features a sevens tournament with a difference, multiple attack-minded law changes to generate some additional razzmatazz. “A lot of boys have testimonial games, and we didn’t want the same 15-on-15, a normal game, because it is hard in that environment,” he explained.

“You have some boys who haven’t played in a while and would get a bit nervous and don’t want to get injured, you have got some boys who want to go 100 per cent because they have always been like that, and you have got some boys who are pretty much in the middle. Games like that usually fizzle out towards the end, so we wanted to do something different. Hopefully, we can get a few extra fans in, people who haven’t been to a rugby game before.

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“That is why we are very much involving the girls, involving people that have never played rugby. I have someone like Matt Jones on my team, a Red Bull athlete who is very much into his bikes. He does crazy downhill stuff, crazy tricks and stuff like that, and he has never touched a rugby ball in his life. He is buzzing to get down and get involved in it.

“It’s just trying to be different. Hopefully, it will be a good laugh,” he continued, adding that players having to temporarily go off the field after making a mistake is the adjustment he is most looking forward to. “If one of your team makes a mistake they have to drop out.

“Because it will be so quick, you could eventually have a team that has got seven people against three, but as soon as someone scores a try, everyone is back in. There are not out for a long period, they are on the sideline for it could be a second before a team scores a try. A mistake is anything, drop the ball, forward pass, anything like that.”

The testimonial idea is a throwback to the amateur era, but Nowell very much believes it still has a place in the modern era. “There is a lot of meaning behind it, that the club honours you, that they want to celebrate your time at that team. For a player to have 10-plus years in one place should be celebrated and it should give everyone a chance to be involved and to celebrate that.

“That is very much down to the players and the committee they make to create that. I don’t think we should lose that because it is harder nowadays for one player to be at a club for 10-plus years which should make the testimonials even more special.”

Nowell and Slade, for sure, have enjoyed coming up with a once-off suite of rule tweaks for their sevens event, but the French-bound full-back/winger is conscious that rugby shouldn’t mess with its laws too much. Instead, he feels the scope for tinkering should lie with jazzing up the entertainment around the 15-a-side game, not the game itself.

“You can tinker with the rules too much because rugby is rugby and the big thing is you don’t want to pee off the players that are actually playing, but I do think there is a lot more around rugby which we can do. We can open rugby up a lot more than what we are doing already to bring in new fans, to bring in different people to fill the stadiums. Yeah, there are a lot of things we can do.

“Just for example, over in Australia on the summer tour last year with Eddie, he took us to a couple of games, a State of Origin game. What they do, it’s not just a rugby game, it’s the whole show before. You have like a live concert before the games, people get in there early, find their seats early. You have got the rugby posts lit up in team colours, you have got the big screens, you have got the boys coming through, you have got live cameras of them in the changing room.

“And then if you also mix that with some of the NFL stuff, you can get the referees miked up, get it on the big screens. It could add to the suspense, give fans an insight into what is happening. We can make it just an amazing sport that we play and it is such a physical sport which is why people love it. I just think we should be able to tap into that a little bit more.”

At the minute, Nowell is adjusting to the reality that he is no longer an Exeter player. It was 2011/12 when he debuted in their first team and cutting the chord hasn’t been easy, especially clearing out his Sandy Park locker. “That was tough. I spent so many years watching boys doing that, lads having their leaver’s speeches and their last game for the club, and I never thought I was going to be in the position where it was going to be my time to do that.

“There are a few more that are doing that. I sit next to Dave Ewers, there is a little group of us that sit in the same area of the changing room. Stuart Hogg did his stuff, I did my stuff, Dave Ewers did his stuff, Ben Moon cleared out his stuff as well, Luke Cowan-Dickie cleared out his stuff. The fact that we all did it together was probably a bit more upsetting than if I did it myself.

“And that is just in my area. Elsewhere in the room, you have got boys like Harry Williams doing it, Sam Simmonds, Joe Simmonds clearing out his stuff as well. Jannes Kirsten. There is a lot and it was a bit of a weird experience watching all the boys do that.

“I have met so many amazing people, so many players that I came up with when I first joined the club, I still remember now how boys like Phil Dollman, Matt Jess made me the player that I am, the old boys. It was amazing from the start and then you have players like Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Ewers, Henry Slade, I’m going to miss those boys very much when I leave.

“We have had such an amazing journey at the club in achieving what we have achieved, it has been incredible. I hope that happens again for the new set of lads that are coming through at the Chiefs, that they can create their own memories and win a few more trophies. But just the memories I have created with my boys have been incredible.

“Even though Bristol is only an hour up the road, they have not always been in the Premiership and in my first few years we very much felt like we were on our own down here, we felt we were a bit isolated down here which was great for us.

“We made the most of that as a club and we live in a beautiful part of the world. We have got Cornwall on our doorstep, so some of the memories we created as well off the field made that even more special. That is what we felt growing up and that is what definitely made us a special team.

“You can’t beat it down here, it’s lovely,” he added, playing up his Cornwall roots with the current weather being so nice and inviting. Some trips home to his folks are definitely on the cards before his pre-season at La Rochelle gets started, a destination he bets that his dad will someday rock up to in his fishing trawler. “Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past my old man. He could very well be doing that.”

Nowell adores his Cornish roots. “I normally just go back to my parents’ house to be fair,” he enthused. “With weather like this, you could be anywhere in the world. I know a few beaches that are unbelievable that my family love going to. We normally head to them and make the most of it.

“You might as well be abroad down there when you get weather like this. That is what we will be doing in the next few weeks, chilling out before everything kicks off again. Head down to Cornwall for a bit of camping, a bit of surfing, see some of the mates, have some barbeques and a few beers.

“I have been lucky enough to go to so many different places in the world, but I honestly think the beaches down there, you don’t get them anywhere else. White sands, clear sea. I put some of the photos up on my Instagram and people are like, ‘Where are you?’

“I’m like, ‘I’m just back home, just in Cornwall’. Yeah, it’s unbelievable down there. The winters are a little bit bleak because it is quiet but that is when people get their heads down and graft… that is what is drawing me to eventually go back down there one day.”

As of now, not a single thing has been packed for his French adventure. “The house is exactly the same way as how we have lived in it the last four, five years. We will probably leave that packing last minute.” What is his one must-pack item? “Obviously, my budgie smugglers because I’m going to set a task of getting into the sea every single day and I don’t think it will be too hard down there,” he quipped.

“One thing I must pack? My barbeque. That is a given. My Commando Joe, that is the thing that I have to bring down with me. My family thinks I’m okay at it but there are some professionals out there who would say otherwise.

“I love cooking on the barbeque, especially when the weather is like this. Steaks, anything like that, any sort of red meat. I like cooking straight on the coals, not on the grill. And I have now got the kids pretty heavily involved in it, they like the barbeque stuff.”

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