Olly Woodburn heaps praise on head coach Rob Baxter as Exeter's rise continues

Daniel Schofield
Olly Woodburn celebrates Exeter's fifth try against Exeter - Getty Images Europe

If you want to understand how Rob Baxter has propelled Exeter from the Championship to within touching distance of the summit of the Premiership then look no further than the development of Olly Woodburn.

The winger was a product of the Bath academy but the stockpiling of established internationals at the Rec meant that Woodburn never truly broke through, despite the odd flash of brilliance. With his contract expiring two seasons ago, there was no great rush for his services. Baxter, however, had seen something he liked.

So the Exeter head coach arranged a chat. When Woodburn arrived he soon found the conversation heading in a direction he had not anticipated. “When you meet Rob, the first thing he talks about isn’t rugby; he talks about the philosophy and who you are, what type of person you are and how you fit in with the club and the environment,” Woodburn said. “I came in ready to talk about rugby but he talked about me as an individual and then the goals and the direction that Exeter are going on. I was really impressed.”

When they got around to discussing rugby, Baxter again surprised Woodburn. “He knew all my strengths and weaknesses almost better than I did,” Woodburn said. “We were on the same page straight away.”

On Saturday afternoon, Woodburn took his tally to 10 Premiership tries for the season by crossing in either half of Exeter’s six-try demolition of Northampton that brought up a record seventh consecutive bonus-point victory. Afterwards he was presented with the supporters’ player of the season award, a testament to his consistent excellence. 

Exeter head coach Rob Baxter Credit: Getty Images

“It has not really hit me yet,” Woodburn said. “I got given the cup straight after the game and I was quite dazed after such a big effort. Life is really good. I had a huge smile on my face after the game and during the game, even though I was hanging on towards the end.”

That is Baxter’s secret. He spots talent and then improves it. He makes average players good and good players great. That credit must be shared by his assistants, Ali Hepher, Ricky Pellow and Rob Hunter. Woodburn’s example is repeated throughout the squad. Tighthead prop Harry Williams arrived last season from Championship club Jersey and will finish this campaign on England’s tour to Argentina alongside academy products Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Maunder.

The other ingredient is the team spirit that has been fostered. Exeter do not go to Barcelona on bonding trips. Instead they have their own internal social groups, from the rival factions of the Cookie and Sandwich Clubs to rounders games and poker nights. “There’s definitely something for everyone here,” Woodburn said.

Exeter players celebrate Sam Hill's try against Northampton Credit: Rex Features

There was a snapshot of that intimacy when the club released a video of the whole squad celebrating Jack Nowell’s Lions call-up as if they had just won the league. “When it was announced all the players were in one room and we were all next door as coaches and you would not have seen a more delighted group of people,” Hepher, the backs coach, said. “The coaches’ office went mental and then there was this huge noise from next door.”

That togetherness translates on to the pitch. Exeter had a rocky start against Northampton. Inside the opening 10 minutes Ollie Devoto gave away an intercept try and they lost Greg Holmes and Dave Ewers to injury. But even while opportunities were butchered, there was no panic. They stuck to their plan and the tries followed as they moved level on points with Wasps at the top of the league.

Victory next week at Gloucester would confirm a home semi-final and a potential opportunity to avenge last season’s Premiership final defeat by Saracens. “We have been in this situation before,” Woodburn said. “We don’t just want to be part of the journey, we want to take control of it.”

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