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The 'like Christmas again' reason Exeter became 2020 title winners

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Joe Simmonds has described the post-lockdown resumption of collective training at Exeter as “the just like Christmas” moment that helped propel the club to its most recent Gallagher Premiership title win. The 2019/20 campaign was suspended in March 2020 due to the restrictions implemented under the pandemic and it was only in August that year that matches resumed behind closed doors.

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Exeter went on to clinch the double that October, defeating Racing in the European final in Bristol and then getting the better of Wasps at a similarly deserted Twickenham, and the story of that league success has now been recounted in the second episode of the Gallagher Making the Right Call video series that takes a closer look at the key decisions that shaped iconic Gallagher Premiership Rugby title-winning seasons.

Simmonds, who was the Exeter skipper when the trophies rolled in, was one of the main contributors in the near-six-minute-long production and he began by sharing his thoughts on the sudden stoppage to the season in England and around the world.

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“We always thought that we were going to be back in over the next day or the next couple of days and then days turn into weeks, weeks turned into months. I thought the S&C were very good at what they did. They kept on top of things with everyone,” he said before explaining what it was like when Exeter did eventually return to in-person training.

“It was like Christmas again, seeing everyone’s faces. The only thing you wanted to do was get back there, so soon as we got back here, there was a huge buzz. That was a huge driver. We realised when we were here we all wanted this one goal – and it was to win.”

Rob Baxter was the director of rugby who pulled it all together for Exeter despite the stoppage. “I remember turning up to stadiums and it being eerie, eerily quiet. We were having a successful season, things were going particularly well… We were seeing the news starting to filter around that things were happening around Covid-19. It was fantastic work from our S&C staff and physio staff. They pretty much broke the gym down and got it out in various centres around Exeter and into players’ houses.

“The players must have been exceptional because when we turned up and were allowed to come back into the first limited training – socially distanced, not inside – they were in great shape.”

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The restarted season culminated in one splendid week in October. “We had won the Champions Cup the week before and you were kind of looking at the team and going, ‘Right, the next game we have got is another final’,” continued Baxter.

“It’s that kind of togetherness and that bond that leads to great performances and great experiences. That level of grit and determination to stay in a fight and without a doubt that period of isolation was part of that growth that we needed.”

Simmonds added: “We got that week (between the finals) right. We could have gone to winning a final, got all intense, real focus on what we had to do whereas I felt like we needed to step back a bit to give us that time to realise what we have achieved. That is where we as a club and individuals probably come out on top because we created a buzz between ourselves.”

  • Gallagher is a global insurance broker, risk management services and consulting firm dedicated to helping business leaders make the right call. To find out more about Gallagher’s Making The Right Call video series, created in partnership with Premiership Rugby, visit: ajg.com/uk/making-the-right-call
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