Head coach Susie Appleby explains what it’s like to start a Premier 15s team during Covid-19

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Exeter Chiefs’ new women’s team

A year has passed since Exeter Chiefs announced they were adding a women’s arm to the club. Six months have passed since it was announced the team would play in the Premier 15s, the English top flight, for at least the next three years.

Yet for all the excitement of setting up a new team, there have been challenges too, challenges that have only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

How to recruit players when you cannot sell the vision and provide a tour of facilities in person? How to build a team culture with the arrival of new faces delayed by visa hold-ups and quarantine periods? How to create a playing style while training is socially-distanced?

Head coach Susie Appleby, the former England scrum-half who was previously in charge of Gloucester-Hartpury, admits that it has been a “slog” at times but there’s also no hiding her excitement. After all, the factors that appealed about the job in the first place still remain.

“The opportunity to work at a club like Exeter Chiefs, with the men top of the Premiership, speaks for itself,” she says. “I’d been at Gloucester-Hartpury for five seasons and they’re now in a really strong position. I want to keep growing and keep challenging myself. Working alongside Rob Baxter and the coaches here is unbelievable and will help me to continue to develop as a coach.

“It’s a really exciting time. Exeter wanted to get into the women’s game long term and they have been incredibly successful hosting Internationals at Sandy Park, so it’s a great opportunity.

“It’s a new project, and I can learn from what went right and what went not so right on the Gloucester journey, so we can get it as right as we can down here. We want to have a really good, consistent pathway.

“I feel like there’s a lot of untapped talent in Devon, Cornwall and the surrounding counties. The ambition and aspirations at Exeter are also endless; there’s nothing to hold us back. All those things combined for me to be drawn in.”

Appleby had phone and Zoom calls with numerous players about joining Exeter and while none of England’s big names are heading to Devon, she has recruited several overseas stars.

Spain’s Patricia Garcia and Laura Delgado as well as Netherlands back-row Linde van der Velden were among the first to arrive, with other internationals coming from North America and Japan. They are complemented by local talent, including teenagers Olivia Churcher and Abby Middlebrooke.

“We reached out to more overseas players, a lot of them with lots of experience in the international game, captains of their countries, so we know they can come in and hit the ground running,” says Appleby.

“They’re good players and are leaders, which is what you need when you launch from nothing. Then we’ve got a lot of local players who can develop around them and the hope is that in year two or three, we’re more English-based.”

The Chiefs men’s set-up have been hugely successful at bringing through players from Devon and Cornwall – think Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade – and the long-term plan is for the women’s side to replicate that.

There is also a sharing of ideas between the coaching set-ups. Assistant coach Amy Garnett has chatted to Rob Hunter about how the Chiefs have evolved their game, Julian Salvi wants the women’s team to be the best defensive side in the Premier 15s, Gareth Steenson has done kicking sessions and Ricky Pellow is working with the scrum-halves. However, don’t expect to see a focus on rolling mauls from Appleby’s team.

“We won’t copy the boys – we’re not male players, we’re female players,” she says. “We’ll keep a lot of ball on the field and want to have forwards with massive engines because of the way we want to play and amount of ball we want them to carry.

“The Chiefs score a lot of tries from driven mauls but there is also some really subtle stuff we can take into our play. Look at wingers like Jack Nowell and how many touches he gets.

Exeter Chiefs’ new women’s team

Coaching duo: Former England players Susie Appleby and Amy Garnett (JMP/Exeter Chiefs)

“We have a lot of ideas but we’ll see what comes to fruition. In the women’s game defences are not as organised as the men’s. That’s not disrespectful, it’s just how it is because we don’t have the same time together. It means we aren’t rigid in what we do, we don’t plan for phases one to five. It’s easier to break down defences, it’s more pure.

“I don’t want players to pass the ball to another player because I told her to, I want her to look up and if there’s space, to go through it. We have a framework to help them, but we also want them to express themselves and see what they deliver, to bring the best out of each other.”

While the playing style between the Chiefs’ male and female contingents will be different, the expectation is the same. Exeter chief executive Tony Rowe has big plans for the women’s team, on and off the field. He’s backed Appleby in providing accommodation to help attract players, but she knows she has to deliver results in return.

“One of the first things Tony said when I took the job was, ‘What do you need?’ He’s very supportive but at the same time he’s a businessman. He wants us to be competitive from the off – no pressure! – and he wants the women’s game to bring in money, to bring crowds. We want to create a spectator experience, for families and kids to come to Sandy Park to watch us.”

Those plans are on hold as matches currently have to be played behind closed doors due to Covid, but Appleby’s Chiefs can start working on their on-field objectives with the Premier 15s kicking off this weekend.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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