Olly Woodburn can recall the hush as Jack Nowell and Henry Slade got up to speak after Exeter’s 40-3 win over Castres in January. There was an elephant in the changing room that needed to be dealt with, and the Chiefs’ two most capped England stars and pillars of the club’s amazing success over the past decade were the men to do it.
“It didn’t come from management or from coaches,” Woodburn recalls. “It came from those players who stood up and said, ‘look, let’s not beat around the bush, this team isn’t going to be the same next year, so let’s make the most of every minute’.
“Jack has been captain most weeks, and there’s Henry too. It was something I was feeling at the time, it was on the tip of my tongue and that was the same for a lot of players – we’d rather face it and use it as a positive, it resonated with us, and it’s a cause you can buy into when you need that extra emotion in tough games.”
Most high-achieving teams encounter this awkward moment, to a greater or lesser extent, when a core group breaks up through transfers or retirements, or both. Very few can have been as pronounced as Exeter’s. Of the 23 men who beat Racing 92 to win the Champions Cup final three years ago, when they also won the Premiership, a mere nine look like being left this summer.
International forwards Tom Francis, Jonny Hill and Sam Skinner left in 2021 and 2022, together with wing Tom O’Flaherty and scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. This summer a huge cohort of Exeter stalwarts – Nowell, Joe and Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Dave Ewers and Jannes Kirsten – will depart, while Stuart Hogg is retiring after the World Cup.
The majority are reckoned to be accepting higher wages elsewhere, as the Chiefs adjust to the reduced £5m Premiership squad cap, with a team whose earning power has ballooned thanks to the very run of success which is now so obviously imperilled.
The significance of January for the chat recalled by Woodburn is as the time when announcements of player moves are at their busiest. The 31-year-old wing has not revealed his own plans but there is no indication he will leave.
“There have been a lot of good times,” Woodburn says of the six straight Premiership finals that began in his first season, 2015-16, after he joined from Bath and embarked on his 53 tries in 151 appearances. Exeter won a first title in 2017 and many a Chiefs fan believes they should have been awarded another two for 2018 and 2019, when Saracens beat them but were later found to have breached the salary cap.
“Just being part of a winning squad makes a difference, every day of your life,” says Woodburn. “It’s so much easier, the coaches are smiling, the players are smiling.”
It all gives Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Stormers at Sandy Park a powerful backdrop. Some Exeter supporters have been voting with their feet, grumbling about high ticket and catering prices. Still, not many voices are raised against players off to chase their market value or sample a new scene: the likes of Nowell joining La Rochelle, according to reports, and the confirmed moves of Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds and Williams to Montpellier.
“There shouldn’t be any criticism from fans – it should just be a ‘thank you for your time’,” says Woodburn. “It’s not like they don’t throw their body around and aren’t really committed to winning. They’ve earned the right to make their own decisions.
“With the players going, there’s quite a lot of nostalgia with playing in Europe together again, and there’s still mathematically something to play for in the Premiership. The guys are just trying to take it day by day because it will go very quickly, and we know we have been part of a special time.
“From a personal point of view, when you look around the team room and you’re not seeing the same familiar faces, it will be sad. At the end of the season, when I’ve had a few drinks, I might get a bit emotional. But hopefully we’ll have more friends to make. We might see some new superstars who will take the mantle that the boys have left.
“Sometimes, when there’s a huge ceiling above you like a Cowan-Dickie or a Sam Simmonds, it’s hard to see potential. But if you give them space and a bit of responsibility, you will see young players develop. I’m excited about seeing them come through.”
Woodburn name-checks scrum-half Will Becconsall and back-row Greg Fisilau as youngsters who have broken through this season, and others would point similarly to Richard Capstick, Rus Tuima, Dafydd Jenkins, Christ Tshiunza, Jack Innard, Ross Vintcent, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Josh Hodge, Tom Cairns, Tom Wyatt, Zack Wimbush and Aidon Davis.
Exeter have also just brought fly-half Will Haydon-Wood back to the Premiership, and signed Ethan Roots and 20-year-old Wales centre Joe Hawkins from Ospreys. Head coach Ali Hepher has taken on more responsibility from director of rugby Rob Baxter this season, and something similar may await forwards coach Rob Hunter.
Stormers are second in the United Rugby Championship, while Exeter are seventh in the Premiership, but Woodburn says: “We’re going to play high-pressure rugby and see how they adjust from playing in a packed-out stadium in Cape Town to coming to Devon for the first time. It’s a huge challenge against a South African team who looked very good against Harlequins, but our analysis has given us a lot to look forward to – we’re a lot different team to Harlequins, and playing at home is going to be a massive advantage.
“Being a part of a game [against Montpellier last week] which went to the very last second of extra time has given everyone a taste for knockout rugby. We’ll put it on them and see how they react.”