‘The strapping held me together – now I hardly wear any’
After an injury-ravaged year, Jack Nowell has benefited more than most from the break and is itching to fly back into action
During a recent Exeter Chiefs training session, the backs were asked to split themselves into two teams. They did so by age and Jack Nowell instinctively edged towards the younger contingent, as he had done throughout his eight years in Rob Baxter’s first-team squad.
“I got told: ‘No, you’re 27. Get over there,’ ” he says. “I thought: ‘S---. You’re right. You’re so right.’ I am one of the old boys now, I guess … but I don’t feel like it. And that’s what counts, being young at heart.
“I look at the boys coming through at 21 and think they’re only a couple of years behind me. It’s when I get home that my missus tells me that I’m three years off 30 and I should act my age.”
Phil Dollman represents a good reference point for Nowell. In 2012, when the bustling wing made a Premiership debut at 19, Dollman was 27 – the age Nowell has now reached. It heartens Nowell that the veteran full-back is still at Sandy
Park, having signed a contract extension to the end of this season. The respective arrivals of Josh Hodge and Corey Baldwin, two mightily exciting back-three talents, also help.
“Those boys bring out your best because they are trying to push you out – as I was doing at their age,” Nowell says. “And I still want to play for a few years, so I’m not going to take my foot off the gas.”
Lockdown in Devon was kind. Nowell’s partner, Zoe, gave birth to the couple’s second daughter. Zimi has joined elder sister, Nori, and their father has been able to spend plenty of time with them.
Nowell was not nearly as frustrated as he might have been by the timing of the Covid-19 hiatus. He had just returned for Exeter eight weeks after an operation to finally repair the ankle damage he suffered in last season’s Premiership final.
That injury ruined his World Cup in Japan. Nowell is an ebullient, affable character, which makes his subdued tone on the topic of 2019 more striking. “I’ll be honest,” he says. “I loved being part of that [England] team and I loved being out there with the boys. But, in terms of my rugby career and where I was mentally, I did struggle a bit. Game after game, I was put back another week. I’ve used lockdown to look forward.”
Red Bull, Nowell’s sponsor, sent him to its athlete performance centre in Salzburg, Austria and kitted out his home gym, which allowed Nowell to lay off running, initially at least, and concentrate on leg weights. “I’ve always struggled with patellar tendinitis in my knees,” he explains. “I had an operation on it, but what has helped get rid of the pain has been having strong quads and leg muscles.”
Nowell returned to team training at 98kg
(15st 6lb), but with his body-fat percentage reduced. And, when Exeter restart their Premiership campaign, against
Saturday, there will be little else weighing him down.
“I’ve had eight weeks of rehab then 20 weeks of getting everything else in line,” he says.
“The way I’m feeling now is amazing. Strapping was holding me together in games. Now I’m hardly wearing any. I feel really, really good.”
A fit, fizzing Nowell would be an asset to most teams on the planet. He is also fired by a sense of underachievement. “I feel like I have so much to give in an England shirt. I can’t remember a game for England when I have come off and felt happy with my performance.” Talk does not linger on Test rugby for long. As Nowell says, selection for England – and for next summer’s British and Irish Lions – will “look after itself ” if he impresses in the Premiership and Champions Cup.
The Chiefs have set themselves the goal of a domestic and European double. Their contract negotiations with Baxter, hastened by the Premiership’s readjustment to the salary cap, were “short and sharp” because they all feel as though there is more to come.
“Being in so many Premiership finals and only coming away with one is a bit bitter,” Nowell says. “In the Heineken Cup, we feel we’ve let ourselves down a lot. I think we’ve only been out of the group stages once [before this season] so there’s a lot more to give.”
Exeter host Northampton Saints in the last eight of the Champions Cup, a fixture scheduled for Sept 20. They are top of the Premiership table, with a five-point cushion. Sale look stronger. Bristol have also welcomed stellar recruits. Saints could challenge, too. Wasps and even Bath could mount late sprints.
All that said, the absence of Saracens from the title race makes Chiefs significant favourites. It must feel weird without rivals who have beaten them in three of the past four Twickenham finals.
“Massively,” confirms Nowell. “They’ve been such a big presence. What’s been done off the field isn’t the fault of the players and it’s always been a very, very good battle.
“But it doesn’t matter who we come up against in the semi-final – if we get there – or in the final. If we pick up the trophy, the boys will be buzzing just as much as if we’d been against them in the final.”
Watch Jack Nowell’s full video on the Red Bull Pro Hub. redbull.com
Beach boy: Jack Nowell training by the sea and (below) in full flow for Exeter Chiefs