On the cusp of signing up to the paratroopers, then student and amateur rugby player Tom Johnson received an invitation to train with National One side, Coventry. Seven years later, Johnson finds himself in a starring role with the Chiefs, seeking to develop his burgeoning international career.
The loose forward accepted the proposition from Coventry with an open mind. A couple of training sessions turned into a season, and the rest was history.
“I thought I’d give it a go, and it worked out. If it had been maybe a month or so later, then I would probably have been all signed up.”
From one national service to another, Johnson’s development from amateur to a fully-fledged international has gone hand-in-hand with Exeter’s charged rise to success. The Chiefs’ growth from National One mediocrity to one of the toughest teams on the Premiership circuit is much alike Johnson’s individual progression.
A combative back rower, Johnson’s game is centred around his work ethic and breakdown ability, combined with soft hands and an unassuming nature which surrounds the Exeter camp. The Chiefs have been praised for playing above their apparent ability – a success attributed to the dressing room atmosphere, which has developed throughout the grind of recent seasons.
“National One was a tough league and there were some very good players in it. We were playing 30-odd games a season, week in week out, with big bus trips up to places like Otley. It built a lot of team spirit and it’s something that we’re very grateful for going through.”
Exeter’s National One days are now a long way behind them. Following a successful second season in the Premiership, in which they finished fifth, the Chiefs are now a side taken seriously. No longer are they a bulky, forward-oriented National One side, for which they have backs coach, Ali Hepher, to thank.
The precedent was set on the opening day of the new season, when Sale Sharks were torn to pieces in a 43-3 hammering at Sandy Park. Much progress from the National One days, indeed.
“It has been great fun to see how the club’s developed, and seeing the players that have been bought in. The infrastructure has been in place and I think that’s the key that has helped us to get to where we are. It hasn’t all happened in one mad rush, it’s been over a gradual period of time, and I think that’s been a solid foundation on which to build.”
The club’s success in the Premiership has earned Exeter their first ever berth in the Heineken Cup. Through increased recognition, revenues and requirements to realise ambition, the Chiefs have been given rein to recruit positively. Former Australian international lock Dean Mumm and Fijian winger Watisoni Votu are among the pick of Exeter’s notable summer signings.
“We’re definitely stronger, definitely the quality has improved. We could probably put out two packs that are similar in quality and strength, which is a really good place to be. Hopefully we can compete in the Premiership and do ourselves justice in the Heineken Cup.
“We always talk about trying to better what we did last season, or improve slightly. The Heineken Cup is going to be a new experience for us, so we’re looking to do well – I think we’ll be better for going to places like Leinster and Clermont Auvergne. In the Premiership, I think it’s going to be about maintaining where we finished last year and hopefully pushing on into the top four.”
Exeter’s European trips to Leinster and Clermont will, indeed, push the side to their limits. At this stage, the Heineken Cup is likely to be one step too far, but that is not to question the ambition curated by director of the year, Rob Baxter.
“Baxter’s input has been huge, that’s what the foundations have been built on. The fact that he was an Exeter player and played 250 odd games for the club is big, and he’s also bought in the people he wanted.”
Johnson, Baxter and the Chiefs have established their mainstay in the Premiership, whether their meteoric growth continues is now in their own hands.
By Nik Simon
Tom Johnson spoke to The Rugby Blog, thanks to MyProtein, Official Nutrition Provider to Exeter Chiefs