‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Rugby Union - By Char­lie Mor­gan

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

Le­ices­ter on

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

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