No one needs telling that rugby is a long way down the list of current global priorities. A lot of people are stuck in coronavirus limbo – or worse – and in Exeter it is no different.
“It all seems rather petty talking about the Premiership when we’re in the grip of something potentially as big as it is,” says Rob Baxter, whose ability to retain a clear sense of perspective is among his defining qualities.
Baxter, though, still has a job to do. Until this season is formally abandoned – as with the Pro14 and all rugby in England beneath the Premiership – he must keep as many performance-related plates spinning as possible. With the Chiefs five points clear at the top of the league and still, in theory, European Champions’ Cup contenders, there is no English club with more to lose should the plug be pulled completely.
With pay cuts already being introduced at other Premiership clubs, the Exeter squad are at home working on individual training programmes. The escalating pandemic could well scupper everything but Baxter is trying to stay upbeat: “At this point there’s still a lot of positivity about wanting to get every game played and there’s still a window there to do that.”
Extending the season into July would be complicated, with the contracts of several players expiring at the end of June. Baxter can see that being problematic – “I don’t think you can just put in a new set of regulations” – and is more concerned with ensuring the correct decisions are made regarding this season’s title winners and the European qualifying places. “Premiership promotion and relegation is probably not the big call this year. Given the Saracens scenario you’ve got your relegation spot and in the Championship there is some space at the top for Newcastle.
“That means the integrity of the competition rests on how we decide the winner and European qualification. What is the minimum [number of games]? We could sit here at Exeter and say: ‘We don’t need many more games to decide who comes out on top’ but other clubs might want to play as many games as possible. It’s going to be a very difficult balance but it would be great to end up with a competition which feels like it has some genuine integrity.”
There is no point in pretending the shutdown is not an untimely blow to Exeter’s increasingly lofty aspirations. Take their in-form fly-half Joe Simmonds, for example. The 23-year-old’s stock is on the rise, so much so that in normal circumstances he would be an England tour candidate for Japan this summer. He has been captaining his club, has missed fewer than half a dozen kicks in all competitions this season despite frequently terrible weather and his teammates rate him massively. “I just hope he finally gets the recognition he deserves,” says Gareth Steenson, his colleague and fellow dead-eyed kicker.
“It seems to me that in terms of international call-ups there’s something desperately wrong. Maybe the English selectors don’t come down to the south-west or something. I think Joe deserves to be in and around the England squad. You’re talking about someone who is captaining one of the top teams in Europe and has only missed two or three kicks in the league all year. And he’s still not in the squad. I find that a bit hard to believe.”
The next few weeks would have been the ideal moment for Simmonds – along with his brother Sam – to nudge a few more influential observers. At least he still has time on his side and England’s current playmakers will not be around indefinitely.
By the 2023 World Cup final Owen Farrell will be 32 and George Ford 30; at some stage, notwithstanding the talented Marcus Smith of Harlequins, the quietly-spoken lad from a lobster and crab fishing family in Teignmouth should be pushing for a full cap. If so, sibling rivalry will have helped.
“I didn’t want to be that little brother who didn’t do anything. I always wanted to be a sportsman and having an older brother was massive. He’s played for England and that pushes me on even more. If I concentrate on performing well for Exeter hopefully one day that day will come.”
Right now 80 minutes of rugby anywhere would do but who knows when that will be possible? “The reality is we’re all waiting to see what happens,” Baxter says. “In Exeter it doesn’t feel as if much has happened yet but in three to four weeks’ time that could have changed massively.”
Along with everyone else in elite sport, the Chiefs are pawns in a much bigger game.