In conversation with Exeter Chiefs Team Manager, Tony Walker about how they’ve maintained their growth and success during 2020.
written by Naomi Prakash
photography by Oscar J Ryan
Exeter currently hold bragging rights for taking the number one spot, in both the English Premiership & European Champions Cup. However, due to COVID-19, finishing off the season was by no means an easy feat, not just regarding performance but also from a logistical perspective. Rex Club sat down with the man behind much of their success, Tony Walker, to chat about how Exeter have continued their success into what has been
a traumatic year for sport.
Tony, can you tell us about what led you to Exeter Chiefs?
I first joined Exeter Chiefs as a player in 2004 after playing in Scotland for seven years. I continued my playing career here until an injury stopped me from going any further. I injured my ACL for the second time, and I wasn’t really in the position to justify rounds of rehab.That was around 2008, and luckily for me, the club was really looking to push into the Premiership around that time. One of the minimum standards to enter the Premiership meant that we needed a Community department, and given some of my previous work up in Scotland on the development side of rugby, I was able to work with Keith Fleming to set up that department for us. In those days, we took on a real variety of tasks, so we all sort of blended into one big group including coaching staff, physios and the medical team.We really started from scratch, and as the club has grown, the departments have gotten a lot bigger and more distinct. From there, I started picking up more admin work, and eventually moved into team management.
What is a typical day as Team Manager for you?
It would probably look a lot differ- ent than what the boys around here would tell you I do! The first thing about managing the team is that my door is always open for staff and play- ers. In order to get to kick-off time at the weekend, there’s a lot of stepping stones to cross throughout the week. Every week looks different; we can be travelling to a different town or coun- try, and it’s all about being prepared. Running the week can often be quite straightforward, but you show your skills when you have an obstacle to deal with. Naturally, there are a lot of them to contend with at the mo- ment with COVID-19! The best thing I can do for myself is to stay organ- ised.That’s the key to making sure all the boxes are ticked, which includes the small but important things that might get overlooked, like visas for travelling to games. Now that there are so many more rules in place, we have to be even more on top of the rules and regulations in and around the game.Theoretically, it’s all about making sure the players have what they require to play the game, and each week really is different.
Do you remember when you were first made aware of the pandemic?
The first time I caught wind of the issue was during a family trip to New Zealand. We’d gone away for a fami- ly reunion, and that was around the time that some murmurs of an illness had started, but back then it seemed pretty isolated to a few countries. By the time we were making our way
home through Singapore, it was clear there was a bigger issue brewing. Rumours of lockdowns started, but I don’t think anyone had antici- pated the impact on sport at that point. We were called into a large meeting in March, and at that point it was made clear that this was seri- ous for our health and our families.
How did players continue elements of training when lockdown started?
Soon after that meeting, the lock- down came into effect. All of a sud- den, we had to plan how we’d keep our players going throughout. The strength and conditioning and med- ical teams got their heads together pretty quickly and worked on a solid plan, even though no one knew how long the lockdown would last. Who would’ve thought we’d still be talk- ing about it now, nine months later?! There was a lot to get done: we were literally loading gym kits into peoples’ cars and trying to set up gyms in ga- rages so the boys could train, because once we were locked down there was nothing else we could do.The strength and conditioning and medical teams have been just amazing – the plan they put in place for the players is proba- bly what kept them going and put us in the strong position we’re in now.
We were lucky that the weath- er was nice for that first lockdown, so spirits remained pretty high and people got some well-earned rest in too. I think even outside of sport, a lot of the public went on a bit of a health-kick, and we definite- ly saw that happen within the club.
What did you miss the most over the break?
The team here really becomes your second family, and so it was very hard to be away from everyone. When you’re here, everyone picks each oth- er up and keeps team morale steady. It’s really fortunate that our group gets on so well and can joke around, but truly cares about each other too. That’s the stuff I really missed. I can see how some people suffered men- tally over the lockdown, or even in ‘normal times’ when they leave the sporting world to retire. It’s really bizarre to suddenly be without your support system. The people here give you an opportunity to be the best you can, and that’s within the staff team too, not just players. Even now that we’re playing again, we hav- en’t been able to have a beer in the bar or speak to spectators and cel- ebrate the season we have just had with everyone, but let’s hope that can happen as we enter into a new year.
How has pre-season training changed this year?
We do COVID testing every week and as long as we get the right re- sults then everyone can kick on, otherwise you can lose a couple guys for a while. It does add an ex- tra level of pressure – you never want to be missing out especially when it comes down to finals time! Through DCMS and the rugby gov- erning bodies, we came back to start training under ‘stage one guid- ance’ which meant no contact.
So you weren’t allowed to shower or eat at work, social distancing is still really important, and balls and equip- ment used have to be cleaned after each touch. There are five stages of guidelines within rugby to create a pathway back to playing competi- tive rugby and get crowds back in. These guidelines gradually allowed us to increase the amount of contact. Stage three is the return to games, four is cross-border like travelling to France, and stage five allows crowds back in to watch live matches again. But every time you advance a stage, you continue defaulting to the pre- vious ones. So say you’re on stage three, when you’re not playing a game you go back to practicing un- der stage one and two guidelines. The aim is to create an environ- ment where we can maximise training but keep everyone safe
and comfortable at the same time, and getting back to stage five, or back to play as normal, re- ally means that you have to get those first four stages right first.
How has social distancing affected players’ morale?
It’s tough to start with, because nat- urally sports people – and especially rugby players – are very close-knit. You high-five, tackle each other and lift each other up. It’s a very hard sport to transition into individual play, as it’s all about contact and en- couragement. Coming back into a changing room where people are sat metres apart and they can’t chat face- to-face was tough. Now, we’ve gotten so used to social distancing that it’s actually hard for some people to start
reintroducing some contact again, so that’s been a whole new challenge in itself.We as staff are a bit like a nag- ging parents at the moment, as we need to push safety rules, additional admin and checks on a daily basis. We are lucky that the whole team of staff and players understand though, and we know we must get these areas right so we get the chance to play the games at the weekends.
What keeps you inspired when things get tough?
Although this change is unprece- dented, we’re used to adversity in sport. We’ve always got new chal- lenges to rise to. Sometimes you have to look at your situation from the outside to realise how good you have it. We’re playing against some amazing traditional clubs