I BUMPED into a Murrayfield insider recently and I suggested that Gregor Townsend’s coaching career had been saved by his twin forward/defence assistants, Pieter de Villiers and Steve Tandy, respectively. I expected some push back, I got none. Assistants are important, especially for Townsend who is still finding his feet in international waters.
So it was odd to see John Dalziel being fast forwarded as Scotland’s forwards coach in the summer. The move raised a few eyebrows at the time and rightly so. Dalziel is a canny operator and definitely one to watch but in terms of professional coaching he is still in nappies after just seven working months at the Warriors; still learning his trade.
Townsend has missed a trick because the best forward pack in club rugby is drilled by a Scot … well, an Anglo Scot to be exact.
In 2013, Rob Hunter quit the England U20’s coaching role after three successive Six Nations triumphs (including one Grand Slam) and Rob Baxter, a canny judge of character, offered him a position with the Chiefs with zero experience of Premiership rugby, for which Hunter remains grateful, even if the exact nature of offer was a little hazy.
“Rob said: ‘Would you like to come and work for us and we will work out the role as we go along?’”, he recalls.
There was talk at the time that Hunter would split his time between the senior and the academy squad and, guess what, he still does when he isn’t casting an eye over the Chiefs women’s team. It is one of the unique things about Exeter.
“Compartmentalisation doesn’t work for me because you are always in transition from one role to another,” says a rare Geordie accent in the West Country. “The academy coaches coach the first team and the first team coaches coach the academy. That’s the best way of putting it. Everyone is working across lots of different areas.”
It works because Exeter are competing in two finals in two weekends, European and then domestic. This is largely thanks to the Chiefs’ forward pack, their weapon of choice, a thing of beauty combining the brute force of a sumo wrestler, the precision of a Swiss timepiece and the remorseless nature of an incoming tide.
Simplicity is key to the Chiefs success. When Jonny Gray sat in his first meeting he was told the three things that he needed to master to be an Exeter forward.
“Gosh….is that it!?”, was his stunned response.
But Hunter insists that the club adds layer upon layer of extras onto those basic foundations, depending on the opposition, and that is where the difference lies, especially in the opposition red zone.
Such is Exeter’s forwards’ excellence in attack that the big men score tries pretty much every time they get within five yards of the line. It is almost a gimmie, the big men snatched three touchdowns in the semi-final, after Bath dominated the opening quarter with nothing to show for it.
“We spend no more time (on the five yard zone) than anywhere else,” says the man holding the whip. “The thing about our five yard play, if the opposition put all their defenders either side of the ruck, we would probably pass the ball wide.
“We spent four or five years scoring maul tries before people started putting eight people in to defend it. If you don’t put the right number of defenders in, you can’t expect anything else.
“The line speed off the try line is so great that it is very difficult to pass the ball when you are a metre away. If people defended differently, we would do something different, but they don’t, so we keep doing it.
“It is a good example of learning how to score and while we don’t spend more time on it (five yard plays) we are tough on it. We are very, very tough. There are very specific roles within that five yard (area) and I expect everyone to know them. Everybody.”
Hunter is showing a hint of the steel underneath his cheery persona. He is an interesting character, the nebbish looking fella, usually sitting behind Rob Baxter, glasses askew.
He is Northumberland born and bred but two grandparents hailed from across the border in Coldstream so when he quit the army in 1993 he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps to London Scottish where he remained until 2000.
By his own reckoning, he was too small to be a modern lock and too slow to be a breakaway but Hunter was the sort of intelligent scrapper, think Tim Swinson, who made the best of what talents he had and you have to think Exeter Chiefs are the perfect fit.
There are two sliding door moments that might have brought him to Townsend’s attention. After earning two Scotland A caps, against Wales and France, Hunter was a late call-up for Scotland’s pre-RWC’99 tour of South Africa, but Townsend was rested for the tour, and the fly-half then quit Northampton Saints a couple of seasons before Hunter joined the Midland’s club in 2000.
The two coaches seem destined to avoid each other, which is a shame because Hunter’s understanding of the nuts and bolts of forward play is second to none and Townsend needs a grounded, forwards coach as counterweight to his wilder flights of fancy. Might Hunter be the man?
“I am an ambitious coach and one day I would very much like to coach international level,” he says before adding the usual kicker. “I wouldn’t say we had unfinished business here (at Exeter) but it is only this year that we have put together a group of players who are competitive in the Premiership and competitive in Europe.
“I do follow coaches who get these (international) roles and I wouldn’t want to do an international role without the experience of playing Irish and French teams in the Heineken because you do get a real good insight into the players and the teams and the different styles from the different nations.
“I am in the perfect place right now because I am improving as a coach, I get to work with great coaches and I get to work with lots of teams. I am ambitious but I don’t want to go anywhere and you can’t get away from the fact that Rob Baxter gave me an opportunity to coach in the Premiership when I had absolutely no experience and I always want to repay that trust.”
Hunter is good on what makes the Chiefs special. The coaches spend a long time stripping players of beliefs that limit their game (‘you can’t do that at this level’ etc etc) and he argues vehemently against bulking up, “you stick 6 kgs on a player, make them less dynamic and they are still 20kgs lighter than Billy Vunapola!” The Chiefs pack is mobile to a man and always works harder than the opposition.
There are four Scots in Exeter’s Heineken Cup squad, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Sam Skinner, and the two big signings Gray and Stuart Hogg. Hunter jokes there are too many Scots at Sandy Park, before quickly getting back on message.
“No, it’s all good. They are definitely not a clique. They have all added in. Skins (Skinner) was an academy player here all along. It’s fantastic because they bring such experience. They are high quality players, particularly Jon (as he calls Jonny Gray).”
They will face one of their Scottish pals on Saturday when Russell lines up for Racing 92 in the European final after unleashing a small moment of magic to undo Saracens’ defence in a nail biting semi. Will the Chiefs adjust their defence to take the Scottish ten into account?
“The system will take care of him,” Hunter says with an air of certainty, “but we will tweak it just as we did for Cheslin Kolbe (of Toulouse, in the semi-finals). There was one shot that showed that perfectly when we had three players ushering Kolbe into touch. He can step one defender, he can’t step three.”
It promises to be a good final. Racing with their attacking weapons and all court game against the acknowledged excellence of the Chiefs’ defence and, of course, that relentless forward pack with the bearded and bespectacled bloke in the stands calling the shots. I congratulate Hunter on the Chiefs making their first ever Heineken Cup final.
“Getting to the final is fantastic,” he replies, “but we really would prefer to win it.”