'We'd a 19-year-old second row on the bench, I don't think we've ever had that'
A glance at the current Gallagher Premiership table makes for very unusual reading for serial finalists Exeter heading into their latest block of games across the Guinness Six Nations period. Rob Baxter’s Chiefs have been in the habit in recent years of forging ahead in and around the top of the league and ensuring semi-final qualification is sewn up with a few matches to spare.
Not this season, however. With 13 games played in their 24-match schedule, Exeter are wallowing in seventh place on the Premiership table and the half-dozen losses they have suffered see them nine points off fourth-place Gloucester in the last of the playoff spots.
Their latest setback came last Saturday at London Irish when they were minus their five-strong England contingent and with their three-strong Scotland now also set to be absent from four of their next six games, the depths of the Exeter squad will certainly be tested in the weeks ahead with the run of matches that begins with this Saturday’s visit of Wasps to Sandy Park.
Head coach Ali Hepher is all too aware of where Exeter are lying in the Premiership but Baxter’s staff have been around long enough to know they can’t expect international level performances from the players now coming into the team to replace their nine-strong Six Nations contingent which also includes Wales squad pick Christ Tshiunza.
“One hundred per cent you take notice of the table. You notice it after the first week and you are always checking where you are as coaches. The important thing is to not get too bogged down with the big picture of it and take each game, creating little mini blocks where we try and target a few points in this block of games and then another small block of games. That is how you build a season.
“Sometimes you’d be surprised how little the players know where they are in the league or how many points or tries we have scored because I ask them the question of where we are in the table and they basically didn’t have a clue, but equally we don’t push it,” continued Hepher, adding that the upcoming block of Premiership games is a period to be embraced rather than feared with some lesser-known Exeter players now on deck.
“The beauty of it is we are getting to see some guys play who have been in the squad for a while but not had much game time, we are watching them and seeing them grow and seeing the potential come through in them. It provides us with that opportunity to look to the future and start to blood those guys.
“That double-winning team [Premiership and European titles in 2019/20] had gone through a lot of experiences previously. Even before getting to our first final in 2016, we were a mid-table side trying to push on. There was a lot of experience being gathered by the Henry Slades, the Luke Cowan-Dickies, the Jack Nowells, they were gaining that experience at that time and for some of these guys now they are getting that first experience of that progression and that experience is massive.
“We have got nine guys away at the minute so that is up there with the highest we have had. It tests you but equally, we have got to remember with these guys coming in they are going to make mistakes and they are going to have to take time to come through over a bit of time. We can’t be expecting an international’s performance out of them at the minute.
“Hopefully, some of them will get there eventually but it is going to take time and it is important for us that we don’t overreact to certain things and have that expectation of an international put on their shoulders. We have certainly got to take each individual as they are and hopefully we move them on as we did the other group and keep them coming through.
“Look, it’s quite exciting to see some of these guys get on the field and give it their best shot and see what we have got. Last weekend we had Dafydd Jenkins on the bench, a 19-year-old second row. I don’t think we have ever had that.
“Him just even being around the squad and running around and training with us is hugely exciting because you can see the potential and what is going to come through in the future. At the minute, it is going to take a little bit of time for those guys but it’s more exciting than any worry about it.”
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