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'When I was a bit younger a coach said that I would never be a scrum-half... I was a bit podgy'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Saturday at Sandy Park was a script in keeping with the writings of Exeter scrum-half Jack Maunder. The defending Heineken Cup Champions had fallen 14 points into arrears in just eight minutes but there was no mad panic, Rob Baxter’s team hitting back against Lyon with 47 points to set up a quarter-final rendezvous next weekend with Leinster.

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Their resilient response took a leaf out of Bounce Back Jack, the recently published early development charity book inspired by the contribution of the Chiefs No9. Taking its cue from the soon-to-be 24-year-old player’s childhood experiences, the story’s main character Jack fights off the feeling of being discouraged at sport when things go wrong for him.

He doggedly builds resilience, boosts his confidence and enthusiastically bounces right back to form. Just like Exeter and the clinical manner in which they fired back at the French visitors with a seven-try backlash.

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It was early 2021 when Maunder’s collaboration with writer Sarah Griffiths and illustrator Lisa Williams first saw the light of day, the trio coming up with an inspiring yarn aimed at helping the homeschooling of early years foundation stage children during the pandemic.

Since then it has grown legs, enjoying numerous favourable reviews on Amazon. “The message is so inspiring and positive”. “Excellent motivational story”. “This book is brilliant”. “It’s relatable to real life and setbacks you meet along the way”.

Not only has it proven a great read, it has raised funds on behalf of the Down’s Syndrome Association, something apparently close to the hearts of the Maunders family, and it also became part of the Gallagher ‘Tackling Tomorrow. Together’ initiative that has seen Premiership rugby clubs give prominence to a number of UK businesses and a charity that have shown tenacity and pioneering spirit during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Exeter were linked in with Children’s Hospice South West, a local provider of palliative, respite, end of life and bereavement hospice care for children with life-limiting conditions and their families, and a video was recently published showing Maunder, Joe Simmonds and Tom O’Flaherty on a Zoom call with a number of families who listened to them reading Bounce Back Jack and answer multiple questions in a rollicking feel-good fashion.

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“It was great fun,” said Maunder to RugbyPass, taking a break from the Champions Cup hype that has taken hold in Exeter as they seek to successfully defend the title they magically won for the first time last October.

“Speaking to the boys after it has really encouraged us to do more. It would be better to do in person but the engagement and what we got from doing it over Zoom and how the parents got behind the book, you could leave comments down the side and all the comments were saying how much they loved it and the kids, when they got to read it, were shouting and the questions were awesome.

“The best one? There was a little lad who didn’t get picked for Plymouth Argyle and he was asking if that had happened to any of us and did we have any advice? Joe Simmonds was straightaway, ‘Look, I didn’t get picked by Torquay but don’t worry about it, keep working hard, keep being resilient and you will get there or you will push on and do other things’.

“That was the best bit. Even though it was my book and the messages we were trying to give over were all there, for Joe to step out and say that sort of stuff was awesome and the messages he was saying were exactly in line with the book.

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“Children’s Hospice South West is an unbelievable cause and with Covid, they have gone through a really tough time. I have very much got a soft spot for them and I liked the idea of supporting local families. The money that the book has made is all going to the Down’s Syndrome Association, which is quite close to home for my family. To manage to put the two together it was a match made in heaven.”

How did it all come about? “I got approached by a guy called Andy Goff who went to school a couple of years below my parents. He got in contact with an old school teacher of mine. With EYFSHome, the idea was to support homeschooling activities for young children through a couple of government grants and Andy introduced me to a writer called Sarah about putting together a story about positive chat, positive support and resilience.

“I liked the idea of entertaining, engaging and educating. That is really important. The earlier you can educate these things the better. It sets the foundations, especially at the ages of four, five and six. That is the sponge time, that is when they take in all of this information.

“They wanted a professional sportsman to talk about how they deal with stress and translate it into a positive story that is very relatable to people. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and the earlier you are exposed to this sort of stuff, not failures but lessons and learning how to be resilient through that, it sets you in better stead for when you are older.

“It then doesn’t come as a surprise when someone slaps you around the wrist in a professional environment, you get dropped or someone is telling you that you are rubbish and you shouldn’t be playing. It’s easier to deal with that sort of stuff if you have got that support network and that resilience about you and listening to that inner voice which is talked about in the book.

“There are little stories, everyone has them. When I was a bit younger a coach said that I would never be a scrum-half. Little things like that, you do remember them and when you see them you do give them a little smile, a little nod and say thank you very much for that and sort of move on a bit.

“I used to love my cricket and I still do, I’m absolutely cricket-mad and in cricket, you have a failure pretty much every single day when you are a bit younger. That is also a good way of building resilience and making sure you go out to bat the next time with a bit of confidence and a clear head.

“I was a bit podgy,” he added, explaining what his rugby coach had agitated over. “I was a bit podgy at the time, probably a bit unfit, so yeah, that was probably the reason. Everyone has their opinions and everyone is entitled to their opinion but what you do about it within yourself is the most important bit.”

In the book, a robin is a character who encourages Jack to get back on top and it’s reflective of what happened to Maunder in real life. “I had a guy called Charlie Guppy who plucked me out when I was about 11 years old, a small kid who had bags of energy, and he helped me out along the way.

“If I wasn’t doing well in my exams or in my school he wouldn’t let me go to a Devon training or a Chiefs training, so he played a major part when I was growing up. When I was 10, 11, 12, he was a major influence in my life, he is probably the robin in the story along with my family.”

Encouragingly, Maunder’s rugby-themed book won’t be a one-off. “Andy is getting a team of other sportsmen together to achieve ten supportive stories, so he is talking to footballers, netballers and so on. The impact that one book has had was enormous so to have ten books, it will hopefully reach a much wider audience.”

One person not in the least bit surprised by the spirit of generosity shown by Maunders is Exeter boss Rob Baxter. “This is where you talk about people being more than just rugby players and Jack is one of those guys, an intelligent young man who understands there is more going on in the world than just rugby, understands he needs more in his life than just rugby.

“It is harder for me to talk about in a way because it doesn’t surprise me at all,” added Baxter in reference to the Zoom call by three of his players with Children’s Hospice South West. “Other people might look at it and go, ‘It’s amazing’. For me, it just looks quite normal. It’s just those guys being themselves and being the normal people they are.

“I see our guys spend their own money buying presents, taking them to the children’s ward. They haven’t done it this year because of Covid but they do it every other year, the whole squad does, they buy into it. They all buy something, they all go and deliver it and for me, it’s not a surprise but it’s fantastic to talk about it. You guys [the media] pick up on it and it can become a bigger thing but for me, it’s just them being the people that they are.”

The Maunder family link with Baxter goes way back, dad Andy an old teammate in the mid-1990s when the club were in the grassroots backwaters. Maunder Senior was a bit of a character, a scrum-half with a distinctive lid whose traditional entrance on the pitch was apparently a head over heels tumble. A butcher by trade, the sport is a regular talking point with his shop’s customers keen on discussing the Chiefs’ exploits.

Have you emerged from his shadow? “What do you think? No way, no way. From the stories that I hear about my old man and the tapes that he used to make me watch of him when I was younger I don’t think I will get there,” said Jack, adding that he and winger O’Flaherty helped the shop out during the first lockdown last year.

“I used to clean the fridges a bit (when younger) and that was a pretty mucky job… but me and Tommy Flats ran deliveries over the lockdown. You can get these big meat boxes and we would take them all around Exeter and by the end of it, we were making friends on the road. A few Exeter fans would open their door and they would see Tom O’Flaherty delivering them meat and they wouldn’t quite believe it. That was really good fun, really good to be able to help out dad in pretty tough times business-wise.”

One thing his dad’s old rugby stories does, however, is ensure Maunder realises the Exeter rags to riches evolution really is an incredible tale. “It’s unbelievable. I don’t think there is another story like it. With the hard work behind the scenes, everyone is right at the top of their game and everyone has been learning through this very long process of getting us to the top and there has been a massive buy-in.

“I sort of remember one game when I was a bit younger down at the County Ground. We have gone from that to now Sandy Park and how wonderful it is when all the fans are there. I keep being harassed that he [dad] got one shirt every two seasons and now looks at us in nice tight lycra, it’s a bit different.

“I’m an extremely proud Exeter lad to be playing for Exeter, playing for my home team, playing for the team that I always dreamed about playing for since I was passing a rugby ball around. It’s really important to this group of lads to keep pushing it on. Everyone takes it very, very personally that the story is not quite over yet.”

Maunder’s first taste of all the razzamatazz was storybook in its delivery, making his breakthrough during Exeter’s first Premiership title-winning season in 2016/17 and then capping it with an England Test debut off the bench in San Juan as a 20-year-old.

He turns 24 this Monday (April 5) and while there hasn’t been a second selection from Eddie Jones since then, the more mature Maunder has grasped hold of the No9 shirt since Nic White’s departure and has refused to let go.

“It was a bit of a roller coaster ride that first year. Physically I wasn’t quite ready for it. I was at first-year university at the time, I’d quite a lot on my plate and rugby took off. I loved every second. That year was absolute heaven. I missed the final, I sadly didn’t play, but the whole feeling around the whole club was so infectious, the excitement, the socials – they are the moments you live for as a rugby player.

“The year after I didn’t really play. I had a few injuries, a few niggles, had an operation and since then I have just looked at it to get as much out of it as I can. We were very lucky to have Nic here and learning from him, seeing how he approached the game mentally and tactically was great for us nines.

“I have probably got a bit better (mentally) as I have got older. I’m not on social media anymore so I stay away from that sort of stuff and listen to the group, listen to my mates and listen to my family. That definitely makes it a bit easier. I’m still young and it’s still something I hope I will get better at. It’s sort of staying in the moment and taking it step by step. It’s an ongoing process. I might not be awesome by the time I finish my career but I will hopefully be better at it than I am at this present moment.”

All the while, Maunder is living the dream with his younger brother Sam, another scrum-half. They have replaced each other, resulting in the eye-catching tweet of “Maunder for Maunder”, while they have also played together once. “Worcester in an Anglo-Welsh game. We’d a few injuries in the backline so my brother came on at full-back and I was playing nine.

“There was one breakdown and I was getting cramps so I had to call my brother from across the pitch. Sammy did the box kick and I chased so it was a Maunder kicking for a Maunder. That was cool, but that Sale game is something I will never forget. We had 30 family members watching and had a big dinner after. That was a very special moment.”

With more potentially to come. “We’re sort of bubbling now. When these big games come around it is just trusting ourselves as a team and then going out there with lots of confidence. That is the key to us. Exeter play their best when they keep it simple.” Just like Bounce Back Jack.

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Shaylen 1 hours ago
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If France, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland got together and all changed their eligibility laws in the same way SA has it would be absolutely bonkers. All players from all nations involved in Europe would be fair game as would their coaches. The investment in rugby would be supercharged as teams would rush to create dream teams. Transfer markets would be super charged, salary caps may change, private investment would grow as rich backers first buy clubs and then put money into their clubs in an effort to land the best players. The richest clubs and franchises would benefit most but money and players would move across borders at a steady flow. Suddenly countries like Wales and Scotland would have a much larger pool of players to select from who would be developed and improved in systems belonging to their rivals within superstar squads while their clubs receive large sums in the transfer market. The Six Nations would experience a big boost as the best players become available all the time. The Champions cup would become even more fiercely contested as the dream teams clash. Fan engagement would grow as fans would follow their favourite players creating interest in the game across the continent. Transfer markets and windows would become interesting events in themselves, speculation would drive it and rumours of big transfers and interest in players would spread. All of this is speculation and much of it would not eventuate straight away but just like in football the spread of players and talent would create these conditions over time. The transfer markets in European football is proof of this. Football had the same club vs country debate eons ago and favoured an open system. This has made it the largest game in the world with global interest and big money. Rugby needs to embrace this approach in the long run as well

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Jon 7 hours ago
Waratahs 'counter-culture' limits Wallaby options for Joe Schmidt

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FEATURE Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink
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