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Rob Baxter’s faith in Jack Nowell was hardly a secret, but Exeter Chiefs’ director of rugby exhibited a special kind of confidence this weekend.
Not only was Nowell whisked directly into Exeter Chief’s starting line-up to face Sale Sharks in the Premiership play-off after a month recovering from sprained medial knee ligaments. Significantly, he replaced Stuart Hogg.
Scotland’s captain, set for a third British and Irish Lions tour later this summer, joined the replacements so Nowell could feature at full-back. Even for a selector as pragmatic and dispassionate as Baxter, the vindication must have felt sweet.
Nowell scored two of the five tries Exeter registered on the way to a 40-30 victory that booked a sixth consecutive Premiership final, with hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and wings Tom O’Flaherty and Alex Cuthbert also crossing the whitewash.
Just as importantly, the 28-year-old stayed firm under an aerial barrage from Sale half-backs Faf de Klerk and Rob du Preez. Conspicuous by his trademark scrum-cap and typically committed, Nowell bustled past bodies to claim box-kicks.
One overhead catch in the second half, behind his own try-line, was particularly accomplished.
Baxter explained that he had examined the previous weekend’s match against Sale, a game he called “a real war”, before deciding to drop Hogg.
“It’s not that Stuart has let anyone down or is a bad guy,” Baxter told BT Sport. “I felt like we had to pick the guys that had contributed the most last week to what was a fantastic turnaround for us across the 80 minutes.
“That, as well as getting Nowellsy fully fit and wanting to get him involved – and I thought it was 100 per cent the right thing to get him involved today after watching him at training – meant that somebody had to pay the price.”
“Unfortunately for Stuart, that was him because I felt that he contributed the least [in the 20-19 win over Sale last Saturday]. His response was exactly what I wanted it to be. I phoned him, said we were going to put him on the bench this week and that I wanted to know what his response was going to be.
“He said I was going to get a reaction and that he was going to prove me wrong. That’s exactly how you want it to be.”
With Baxter suggesting that Exeter may attempt to keep the ball for longer periods in Saturday’s domestic decider against Harlequins, Hogg may yet return to Chiefs’ starting side.
Then again, Nowell wore 15 in the 2019 final against Saracens and was phenomenal before suffering a nasty ankle injury that required surgery and spoiled his World Cup campaign for England. It would be fascinating to know Warren Gatland’s thoughts on an intriguing selection call.
Four years ago, Gatland made Nowell Exeter’s first ever Lion. This time around, the Cornishman had not played enough force to his way into the initial squad. If Hogg is to make the Test team in South Africa, he will have to negotiate a torrent of high balls with the conviction demonstrated by his club colleague.
As for England, 23 of Nowell’s starts have come on the wing with the remaining one at outside centre against Japan in 2018. Eddie Jones mooted a switch to openside flanker as a hybrid player – how could we forget? – but is yet to station him at full-back.
Exeter also have the exciting Josh Hodge, while Max Malins and young Freddie Steward are alternative options for England this summer. Nowell should be fresh and motivated for duty, though. He offers a brawny breakdown threat in defence, as Mike Brown did, and is a busy attacker. While not a classic passing playmaker, Nowell relishes a roaming role and has an uncanny knack of slipping tackles.
Both of his tries in a compelling semi-final were opportunistic, the first coming from a tap and go penalty and the second following a clever Joe Simmonds kick that had turned Sale’s backline. Exeter married forward muscle with some slick phase-play and were characteristically ruthless from close range. Whooping, hollering and creating havoc, Cowan-Dickie thoroughly enjoyed himself.
Baxter’s only complaint afterwards was targeted at the “completely flawed” disciplinary process that has seen him lose two influential forwards, Sam Skinner and Dave Ewers, to suspension. It would not have helped his consternation that Manu Tuilagi avoided a red card for a high tackle that caused Richard Capstick to leave the field after just five minutes.
Despite surrendering a 12-0 deficit within 10 minutes, Sale remained admirably dogged in the absence of fly-half AJ MacGinty. Rohan Janse van Rensburg, a late replacement for Sam James just before kick-off, scored twice and Dan du Preez powered over late on as his brother Rob accumulated 13 points from the tee.
At full-time, Alex Sanderson did not seem heartened by such defiance and rued Exeter’s ruthlessness. Eventually, though, Sale’s director of rugby outlined reasons to be cheerful. His team ended the match on the front foot with scrum-half Raffi Quirke (19), tighthead prop James Harper (20), hooker Ewan Ashman, fly-half Kieran Wilkinson and wing Arron Reed (all 21) taking the fight to Chiefs.
“When the hangover subsides – on about Tuesday – and we step back, stop looking at the roots and kicking stones and start smelling the roses, I think we’ll all be very happy with how far we’ve come,” he said.
“We have come a long way. We had five lads on the field there around 20 years old and they were dominating. We’ve got [loosehead prop] Bevan Rodd, who I decided to swap out today and maybe that was a poor move on my part.
“But that is six of them who are good enough to compete on this level in a semi-final against the double champions. On the back of the belief we’ve got, with the youth coming through, we’re only going to go from strength to strength. This will not be the last time we’re here.”