Can Exeter Rebuild?
It’s been a summer of change at Sandy Park. The majority of the ‘golden generation’ of players have left for pastures new; and there is a new emphasis on young stars; but how will the two time Premiership Champions fare this season?
1. Henry Slade
The last of the golden generation; Henry Slade is Exeter’s star player. The Sandy Park faithful, as well as the majority of England fans, were up in arms at his omission from the England squad for the World Cup; but this gives Slade a point to prove this season. He is known for his silky skills, but this season more than ever, his leadership is what makes him so vital in the Chiefs backline.
2. Ethan Roots
A new arrival from Ospreys, Ethan Roots is a like for like replacement for club legend Dave Ewers. Roots is a powerful player on both sides of the ball and is the perfect substitute for the fridge-like Ewers. He has already been entrusted with the captain’s armband in the Premiership Cup, so it looks like he is already thought of as a leader within the group.
3. Joe Hawkins
Another new arrival from Ospreys, Welsh international Joe Hawkins is a fantastic signing for the Chiefs. A talented ball-player, Hawkins will fit straight into the Chiefs midfield alongside Henry Slade. Plenty of people argued for his inclusion in the Welsh World Cup Squad, and if it wasn’t for his move to Sandy Park he would probably be there. One key ability Hawkins has is also that he can play fly-half. This gives the Chiefs that dual playmaker axis, and will take a lot of pressure off Harvey Skinner.
4. Jonny Gray
Jonny Gray is an unsung hero in the Exeter side, but his absence last season was noticeable. He does a lot of the ugly, unseen work that often gets no credit. He carries hard, goes through plenty of work in defence and is a lineout general. Jonny Gray is also another experienced head in the pack, which will be crucial for them going forward.
Exeter’s golden generation saw them lift Premiership and European titles, but this year the focus is completely different. Many have already written the Chiefs off this season, citing the long process of rebuilding the ‘Exeter 2.0’, but if anyone can defy the odds it’s Exeter; let’s not forget the Chiefs have only been in the Premiership for 13 years, and in that time have been to six Premiership Finals.
Whilst the likes of Jack Nowell, Dave Ewers, Joe and Sam Simmonds, Stuart Hogg et al have all left Sandy Park this summer for new challenges, Exeter still have a strong squad. The players mentioned above are testament to that, and that hasn’t even factored in the likes of young Welsh internationals Dafydd Jenkinks and Christ Tshiunza, Jacques Vermulan, Ollie Devoto (if he stays fit) and Olly Woodburn; the squad is still littered with talent and this can’t be overlooked.
Now this might seem like I’m tipping the Chiefs for the title, I’m not, but a top six finish should be the target, and the playoffs are definitely not off the table either.
The Chiefs have had a solid Premiership Cup campaign. They recorded huge wins over London Scottish and local rivals Cornish Pirates, and got the hard tests they needed against Jersey and Bath. They could find themselves in the semi-finals of this competition too (at the time of writing the points from teams that didn’t play Jersey hadn’t been decided). This sets them up very nicely for the regular Premiership season.
A crucial thing though is they have tested their core combinations too. Slade and Hawkins were deployed together in some of the games, which will prove vital for the Premiership campaign. Furthermore, the young players which will form much of the team this season, namely Rus Tuima, Lewis Pearson and Greg Fisilau all got good minutes on the pitch and this again will help for the regular campaign.
The Chiefs come into this season in the midst of a rebuild, but that shouldn’t squash any of the optimism for the Exeter faithful.